Engineering Synthetic Microbial Communities for Biomethane Production

Lead Research Organisation: Earlham Institute
Department Name: UNLISTED


Complex microbial communities underlie natural processes such as global chemical cycles and digestion in higher animals, and are routinely exploited for industrial scale synthesis, waste treatment and fermentation. Our basic understanding of the structures, stabilities and functions of such communities is limited, leading to the declaration of their study as the next frontier in microbial ecology, microbiology, and synthetic biology. Focusing on biomethane producing microbial communities, we will undertake a two-tiered approach of optimising natural communities and designing synthetic communities with a focus on achieving robust, high-yield biomethane production. Within this biotechnological framework, our proposal will address several fundamental scientific questions on the link between the structure and function of microbial communities.

We will apply group selection on natural BMCs to improve biomethane productivity and characterize these communities through next generation sequencing to determine how communities change in response to selection, and whether significant evolutionary change has occurred in the transcriptomes of focal species. Additionally we will take a complementary approach to experimentally build synthetic BMCs from the bottom-up. We will utilise both kinetic modelling and FBA to rationally design small BMCs and then experimentally implement. The starting point for both flux balance analysis (FBA) and experimental work will be an existing co-culture that is capable of converting lactate into methane19. The engineered communities and their temporal behaviour will be analysed using genomics and transcriptomics approaches. Both natural BMCs and engineered ones will be tested for performance and stability in scaled up mid-sized reactors. Testing their performance and stability in industrially relevant conditions and extending the scope of the research towards a knowledge-based microbial biomethane production industry.


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