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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Development of photosynthetic microbes for algal biofuel and other biotechnologies

Background:

Photosynthesis is the pivotal biological reaction on the planet, providing the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe, and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. In the search for more sustainable source of energy to fuel future global demands, biofuels derived from marine algae have thus drawn much interests – but the realisation of this potential is hampered by the low efficiency of energy conversion from the sun into usable biomass. On the other hand, one may also consider tapping into this ‘unused’ solar energy to power other useful chemical reactions.

High and Low Chlorophyll Algal Strains
High and Low Chlorophyll Algal Strains

Meanwhile, to ameliorate rising atmospheric CO2 from human activities, weathering of rocks at the Earth’s surface has been a natural process that converts atmospheric CO2 into benign forms of carbon, including carbonate minerals. However, these processes are very slow in nature. To speed these processes up, there are real potentials of utilising enzymatic catalyses by microorganisms to enhance such weathering, thereby reducing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

 

Bioreactor experiments
Bioreactor experiments with targeted microbial strains for weathering

Key Questions:

1.  Can photosynthetic microbes be developed as platforms for the sustainable development of useful compounds? – How can the metabolic potentials of photosynthetic microbes be harnessed for biotechnological applications, including biofuels, pharmaceuticals and nutrichemicals?

2.  Can microorganisms be applied to enhance weathering to capture CO2? – What are the useful microbial traits, and which microorganisms are ideal for sustainable applications in enhanced weathering?

 

Enrichment microbial cultures from a mine site
Enrichment microbial cultures from a mine site

How do we do it?

From fundamental molecular understanding of marine photosynthesis, we identify the inefficiencies in photosynthesis, and then use this in the rational engineering of photosynthetic microbes using synthetic biology.

We 'rewire' photosynthesis, such that more absorbed light is used to power a range of additional valuable chemical reactions.

We also use modern omics (Environmental Sequencing Facility) and high-throughput technologies, to enable identification, selection and improvement of algal cell lines on timescales relevant for achieving significant contributions to future energy solutions.

Combining chemical potential calculations, mine waste characterisation and omics technologies (Environmental Sequencing Facility) to identify functional potentials of indigenous microbes, followed by laboratory experimentation – we are developing a biotechnological approach to enhance weathering rates of mine waste material to help sequester CO2, as part of the greenhouse gas removal project GGREW.

Who in the Marine Biogeochemistry Group is involved?

Prof Tom Bibby; Dr Phyllis Lam; Prof Mark Moore.

Links to other Research Themes

Chemical, biological and physical controls on primary production in the surface ocean

Vertical export of materials into the ocean's interior and processes in the 'twilight zone'

Biogeochemical cycles and their response to climate change

Dynamics of marine planktonic and microbial communities – from single cells to large scale processes and ecosystem functions

Geochemistry Research Group

Institute for Life Sciences

National Biofilms Innovation Centre

Carbon Dioxide Removal and Storage

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