Publish Date: 20.02.2013

Category: News from the University

Oil is an important strategic resource whose price greatly influences the global economy. Since Europe relies to a great extent on imported oil, it has turned its focus toward research and development of alternative energy sources that would reduce dependency on foreign energy as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7), the European Commission awarded funding for research and development of biohydrogen production. Scientists from University of Ljubljana are taking part in this large-scale project, carried out by a consortium of international scientists under the coordination of professor Peter Lindblad from Uppsala University, Sweden. The project entitled “Design, construction and demonstration of solar biofuel production using novel (photo)synthetic cell factories” is based on the use of synthetic biology to develop cyanobacteria with enhanced ability of hydrogen production.

The CyanoFactory Consortium (http://cyanofactory.eu/) brings together ten leading research partners from seven European countries: Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia. The partners include two SMEs, two research institutes and six universities. In the course of three years, new genetic circuits will be introduced into Cyanobacteria – photosynthetic microorganisms that are, like plants, able to convert solar energy into chemical energy. Cyanobacteria naturally generate small amounts of hydrogen as a side product of biochemical reactions. However, the produced hydrogen gets degraded rather than released from the cells. In order to generate hydrogen as an energy source, the cells will have to be modified in two ways: by introducing genes encoding more efficient enzymes and by preventing chemical conversion of the produced hydrogen.

In addition, cyanobacteria will need to be optimized for cultivation in outdoor photobioreactors, where they will be exposed to variable growth conditions, such as fluctuating temperature and light availability. As the bacteria will be carrying foreign genes, special care will need to be taken with regard to biological safety. The issue of biosafety will be addressed by the Slovenian researchers at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology. Under the supervision of associate professor Marko Dolinar, an inducible suicidal mechanism will be introduced into cyanobacteria. This mechanism will get activated in case of accidental bacterial leakage from the bioreactor into the environment. The suicidal system will take advantage of the existing cyanobacterial toxin-antitoxin pairs, with the toxin moieties, harmless to humans, acting within cyanobacterial cells.

The final step of the CyanoFactory project will be the construction of a network of twenty interconnected 50-liter outdoor hydrogen-producing closed photobioreactors. This system will enable scientists to validate hydrogen production parameters determined in the small-scale laboratory experiments, and identify potential manufacturing bottlenecks.

Although many researchers around the globe are investigating potential new sources of renewable energy, special focus is given to identifying new energy sources that would not compete with the production of food, would be cost-efficient and would not have a significant impact on the environment. The characteristics of cyanobacterial production of biohydrogen make it one of the most promising options. With side-by-side development of hydrogen-powered engines, the hydrogen-fueled vehicles are likely to become widespread within the next 10 to 20 years. The use of hydrogen in hydrogen engines generates water and does not create carbon emissions. In addition, the biotechnological production of hydrogen requires little more than microbial cells, sunlight and a hydrogen-capturing system.

Synthetic biology approaches take central place in the CyanoFactory project. By employing the knowledge of well established cellular principles as well as of particular biochemical processes and gene functions, highly specific genetic modifications can be introduced into organisms to generate biological products useful to humans. However, when using genetically modified organisms it is extremely important to ensure biological safety – and this is where the important work from researchers of University of Ljubljana will come in.

Dr. Helena Čelešnik carrying out experiments with cyanobacteria in biochemistry laboratories of the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, University of Ljubljana.