14-PSIL: Plug and Play Photosynthesis for RuBisCO Independent Fuels

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Chemistry

Abstract

Solar energy is a sustainable resource exceeding predicted human energy demands by >3 orders of magnitude. If this diffuse solar energy can be concentrated and stored efficiently, then it has the capacity to provide for future human energy needs. The process of oxidative photosynthesis, namely the reduction of CO2 utilizing light and water by photoautotrophs, stores solar energy in reduced carbon compounds, which are useful fuels for society. Although oxidative photosynthesis evolved some 3.5 billion years ago, it remains inefficient at converting solar energy into chemical energy and, ultimately, biomass. Commercial photovoltaics in concert with electrolyzers split water to produce hydrogen at an efficiency of approximately 10%. Photosynthetic yields for plants in optimal conditions typically do not exceed 1%, and higher-yielding microalgae species are estimated to have 3% efficiency. Under most conditions, the biological transformation of light to stored chemical energy is not limited by light but by the rate of carbon reduction. The goal of this project is to engineer pathways for diverting photosynthetic energy from linear electron flow (LEF) to alternative sinks, thereby providing alternate routes for "excess" photosynthetic capacity when carbon fixation is saturated. Our strategy is to engineer an intercellular, plug-and-play platform (PNP) that allows us to move electrons and/or reduced chemicals from modified photosynthetic source cells to independently engineered fuel-production modules that bypass the inherently inefficient
carbon-fixing catalyst RuBisCO. The realization of this goal will require radical manipulation of the fundamental biology of photosynthesis and development of novel synthetic biological, chemical, and analytical techniques.

Technical Summary

Solar energy is a sustainable resource exceeding human energy demands by >3 orders of magnitude. If this diffuse energy can be concentrated and stored, it has the capacity to provide for human energy needs. The biological transformation of light to chemical energy (photosynthesis) is limited by the rate of carbon reduction. The goal of this project is to engineer pathways for diverting energy from carbon reduction to alternative sinks.
Our strategy is to engineer an intercellular, plug and play platform that allows electrons and/or reduced chemicals to move from photosynthetic cells to engineered fuel production modules, bypassing the inefficient carbon-fixing catalyst RuBisCO. This will be achieved by increasing flux through natural electron dissipation pathways, creating electrical connections between cell types, and employing a soluble redox shuttle to transfer reducing equivalents between cells. This international and interdisciplinary project is building bridges between the US and UK scientific communities in critical areas of synthetic biology, photosynthesis, electro-chemistry, catalysis, and metabolic regulation.
The scientific goals are organized around 4 specific aims. 1 Characterize components and control flux through the natural photosynthetic pathways in the cyanobacteria Synechocystis. 2 Construct artificial systems to sink reducing equivalents from photosynthesis. 3 Develop artificial means to move reducing equivalents outside the cell. 4 Produce artificial fuel production modules that require only reducing equivalents and CO2.
The project represents a radical approach to surpass natural photosynthesis by engineering a modular division of labor through electrical/chemical connectivity. The aims are devised to generate transformative research for technological applications and enable the discovery of fundamental science. Our goal, therefore, is to establish a platform to open a vast new frontier to develop new modular photosynthetic technologies.

Planned Impact

Ensuring a stable energy supply is the central challenge of the 21st century, and this team will highlight the importance of the problem and prepare the next generation of scientists. In additional to the technical goals, this project is envisaged to have broader impacts in four distinct domains:
1. The successful completion of the scientific goals of this program will transform thinking about photosynthesis by creating independent modules for studying and optimizing the light and dark processes as well as portable biowires to establish functional contacts between distinct cell types. These modules, as well as the platform for testing them as a system, will be freely shared with other researchers.
2. Students will be important stakeholders in the Plug and Play (P&P) team and funds have been included for all American PIs to include summer, undergraduate students in their research. Furthermore, the proposed project offers extraordinary training opportunities to students at all levels. Unique to this project and multidisciplinary team is the range of scientific disciplines and academic institutions involved. In particular P&P includes representatives from the fields of microbial ecology, synthetic biology, protein biochemistry, protein design spectroscopy, electrical engineering and bioinorganic chemistry, and its members work in labs in seven universities in the U.S. (Arizona State, Michigan State, Penn State, Emory) and the U.K. (Glasgow, Southampton, Imperial).
3. The P&P team exemplifies the globalization of science and will serve as a model for collaboration between the NSF and the BBSRC. Recognizing the importance of international collaboration, we have carefully constructed a trans-Atlantic administrative structure to foster close ties and included funds in the budget to support exchange of scientific personnel between laboratories.
4. Dissemination of scientific results will be crucial to this project, both to push the boundaries of photosynthetic research and engage the public in understanding a crucial problem. The geographic disparity of the participants provides a unique opportunity to develop web-based photosynthetic resources to engage the international community.

Publications

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Surman AJ (2019) Environmental control programs the emergence of distinct functional ensembles from unconstrained chemical reactions. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Points LJ (2018) Artificial intelligence exploration of unstable protocells leads to predictable properties and discovery of collective behavior. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Turk-MacLeod R (2018) Approach to classify, separate, and enrich objects in groups using ensemble sorting. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

 
Description Ensuring a stable energy supply is the central challenge of the 21st century, and this team will highlight the importance of the problem and prepare the next generation of scientists. In additional to the technical goals, this project is envisaged to have broader impacts in four distinct domains. (1) the completion of the scientific goals of this project will provide separable modules for solar fuel production that will be freely distributed to other researchers. (2) The training opportunities of this project are extraordinary and scientists at all levels from undergraduate, graduate, to post-doctoral will be included. (3) The team exemplified not only interdisciplinary science but all international science, and trainees will have a unique opportunity to participate in strong international teams. (4) Web based resources will be constructed to disseminating results to the international community.
Exploitation Route This grant was the seed of many more regarding energy and solar fuels. If we are going to be able to sustain the long-term research that our ambitious goals require then it is important to raise public awareness of the issues involved. Why the harnessing of solar energy is so important to our long-term future and how its use might affect our environment (ie. the required changes in land usage) must be explained and hopefully justified. With this grant and successive funding we did undertake a range of activities in order to address this issue. This grant helped to develop an extensive web resource where we will set out the case for using solar energy as a source of clean renewable energy. We produced an extensive series of links to the relevant source literature and advertise national and international events related to solar energy research. As part of this we will set up a Pod Cast resource where we will have a series of short (5 min.) interviews with experts in this area so that students, teachers and indeed the general public can listen to all the relevant arguments. Certainly our students use these Pod Casts extensively and they appear to be a very effective means of communication. We have raised awareness amongst the next generation of pupils so that when they are going to come to University they will be 'fired up' about this topic and be keen to learn more and indeed to work on it. At the same time we will use the good offices of our University publicity department to ensure that we have maximum media coverage of our meeting. It is helpful, therefore, that RJC has attended the BBSRC's media training program and is experienced at speaking on the TV news. We have contributed in Glasgow to a very active Café Scientifique run by Prof. Mandy Mclean. We will contribute to this and use it as a forum to address the need for this research and to start to discuss the societal issues that it raises, in terms of land usage etc. We are also fortunate in Glasgow to have a Science Centre. RJC already has a 5min. video clip on show there that explains his research on photosynthesis. We plan to interact more closely with the Science Centre to help them produce more material that can be used to explain solar energy to school children. This will take the form of both demonstrations and visual material. We have initially allocated £10k for these activities.
Sectors Chemicals,Construction

 
Description Ensuring a stable energy supply is the central challenge of the 21st century, and this team will highlight the importance of the problem and prepare the next generation of scientists. In additional to the technical goals, this project is envisaged to have broader impacts in four distinct domains: 1. The successful completion of the scientific goals of this program will transform thinking about photosynthesis by creating independent modules for studying and optimizing the light and dark processes as well as portable biowires to establish functional contacts between distinct cell types. These modules, as well as the platform for testing them as a system, will be freely shared with other researchers. 2. Students will be important stakeholders in the Plug and Play (P&P) team and funds have been included for all American PIs to include summer, undergraduate students in their research. Furthermore, the proposed project offers extraordinary training opportunities to students at all levels. Unique to this project and multidisciplinary team is the range of scientific disciplines and academic institutions involved. In particular P&P includes representatives from the fields of microbial ecology, synthetic biology, protein biochemistry, protein design spectroscopy, electrical engineering and bioinorganic chemistry, and its members work in labs in seven universities in the U.S. (Arizona State, Michigan State, Penn State, Emory) and the U.K. (Glasgow, Southampton, Imperial). 3. The P&P team exemplifies the globalization of science and will serve as a model for collaboration between the NSF and the BBSRC. Recognizing the importance of international collaboration, we have carefully constructed a trans-Atlantic administrative structure to foster close ties and included funds in the budget to support exchange of scientific personnel between laboratories. 4. Dissemination of scientific results will be crucial to this project, both to push the boundaries of photosynthetic research and engage the public in understanding a crucial problem.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Transport
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Company Name Astrea Power 
Description Astrea Power is an exciting new spin out company that will exploit a novel electrolysis technique invented at the University of Glasgow that will revolutionise hydrogen generation and power to gas. Electrolysis for hydrogen generation is increasingly being recognized as a key enabling technology for the supply of high purity hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, energy systems and industrial applications. Within these contexts, hydrogen production via electrolysis enables: Maximising grid integration of renewables. Increasing the economic value of renewable assets (energy storage). Creation of a low zero carbon fuel to decarbonize transport, heat and industrial applications (CO2 reduction value). Economic application of ultrapure hydrogen in industrial and laboratory applications. Current electrolytic hydrogen generation systems remain high cost, are not easily coupled to renewable sources and their cost reduction routes other than via economies of scale are limited. The technology Astrea will exploit was developed by a team led by Professor Lee Cronin of the School of Chemistry at the University Of Glasgow. Scottish Enterprise, Scotland's economic development agency, have funded the project since 2013. The technology has resulted in a patented system that has both cost and performance advantages over current current electrolyser and hydrogen storage systems including: increased durability, increased efficiency, low cost high pressure and high purity capability, reduced precious metal usage and low load capability for maximizing solar/wind capture and as a consequence delivers a lower cost of ownership to the end user. 
Year Established 2015 
Impact just started