EC-funded project develops engineered micro-organisms

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The European Commission (EC) is to fund a project to develop photosynthetic micro-organisms that directly convert solar power and carbon dioxide into engine fuel.

The Directfuel project − spearheaded by Dr Patrik Jones and Prof Eva-Mari Aro at the University of Turku in Finland − will attempt to biologically convert solar energy directly to propane by engineered cyanobacteria.

Propane, a product that is volatile at room temperature, is easily liquefied and, having been used for more than half a century, has an existing distribution infrastructure.

Prof Nigel Scrutton from Manchester University’s Faculty of Life Sciences team will be collaborating on the project with Prof David Leys. He said: ’The successful outcome of the Directfuel project will revolutionise the production of biofuels by engineering photosynthetic microbes that produce engine-ready fuels without the need to harvest biomass.’

Biological energy-conversion processes are particularly well-suited for production of the hydrocarbon fuel molecules. However, no natural molecular ability for such a conversion is known at present, so the task of the Directfuel project is to construct new metabolic pathways with such capability.

To do so, the researchers involved in the Directfuel project will work on a range of research areas, including enzyme screening, evolution and targeted engineering, computational modelling of photobiological metabolisms, engineering and optimisation of the metabolism of cyanobacteria, the development of photobioreactor technology and theoretical life-cycle analysis.

Other consortium partners include Prof Merja Penttilä (Valtion Teknillinen Tutkimuskeskus (VTT), Finland), Prof Wolfgang Hess (Albert-Ludwigs-Universitaet Freiburg, Germany), Dr Ralf Steuer (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany), Prof Neil Marsh (University of Michigan, US), Prof Yumiko Sakuragi (University of Copenhagen, Denmark), Dr Alessandra Frattini (Chemtext Italia SRL, Italy) and Martin Trtilek (Photon Systems Instruments, Czech Republic).