NREL Partnership: Engineering synthetic RNA devices to expediate the evolution of metabolite producing micro-organisms

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: School of Life Sciences


Ethylene is a small hydrocarbon gas, widely used in the chemical industry. Its annual worldwide production currently exceeds 150 million tonnes, surpassing any other organic compound. Ethylene is currently produced from steam cracking of ethane which produces vast quantities of CO2, contributing to global warming. Ethylene is the monomer for the most common plastic, polyethylene, and annual global production is approximately 80 million tons. Therefore, unlocking a sustainable or carbon neutral alternative to ethylene production is imperative. Cupriavidus necator is a Gram-negative soil bacterium, capable of growing on CO2 enabling low carbon fuels and chemicals to be produced with minimal environmental impact.

The aim of this project being to engineer Cupriavidus necator as a platform for the production of hydrocarbon-based products such as ethylene. There are currently three pathways for ethylene synthesis this project will focus on the alternative pathway found in Pseudomonas syringae and Penicillium digitatum, which utilises a-ketoglutarate (AKG) and arginine in a reaction catalyzed by the ethylene-forming enzyme (EFE). Microbial engineering will be utilised to redirect flux towards ethylene production. An underlying problem in synthetic biology remains the limited number of composable, high-performance parts for constructing genetic circuits and difficulties that arise when integrating multiple components into a large, complex synthetic network, the project will utilise RNA-based regulatory elements as a potential solution to this component bottleneck. We will engineer artificial sRNAs as a platform for strain improvement utilising cutting edge de-novo designed riboregulators termed toehold switches, these systems routinely enable modulation of protein expression over two orders of magnitude and have validated over 100 functional systems in E. coli. The use of synthetic RNA, for both regulatory and structural applications, is on an upward trajectory as RNA continues to play an important role in the future of synthetic biology. By combining the respective strengths of Nottingham University SBRC and the NREL, there is a real opportunity to make significant progress towards new bacterial-based routes to chemicals and fuels from biomass.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M008770/1 30/09/2015 31/03/2024
1647687 Studentship BB/M008770/1 30/09/2015 24/08/2020
Description Collaboration with National renewable energy laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. 
Organisation U.S. Department of Energy
Department National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We worked together towards a paper in which I was 5th author. My supervisor and 2 other people from UoN were also on the paper. The american partners were wanting to test a theory but needed microbial strains which had been engineered to produce chemicals. We at UoN provided some of these strains.
Collaborator Contribution The collaborator used quantum dots which are activated as light which then was succesful as being an energy source for the bacterial cells which were genetically engineered to make chemicals.
Impact Publication.
Start Year 2019
Description Biotechnology Yes 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I was part of a 5 man biotechnology yes team. Biotechnology yes is a biotechnology version of dragons den where young scientists have to come up with a business plan and product and pitch our ideas to potential investors. We learnt about the busineess aspects of the science world and learn abotu marketing, IP, exit strategies etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Mansfield science fair 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Mansfield science fair. I took part in a four person stand in which we used sweets to explain and make models of the DNA doule helix in the aim to develop understanding of what DNA is in a fun accessible way to children.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Nottinghams wonder event. Science outreach day. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Nottinghams wonder event is a science outreach event which is open to all. I took part in an event in where I explained the advantages of biofuels and helped run a board game/quiz based on differetn types of biofuels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019