China Partnership on Synthetic Biology: Chemicals and fuels from waste gas using gas-eating Microbes

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


BACKGROUND: One of the greatest challenges facing industry and society is the future sustainable production of chemicals and fuels from non-food resources while at the same time reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. Accordingly, in recent years attention has turned to the use of bilogical fermentation processes. However, to compete with existing fuel and chemical manufacturing processes based on petrochemical derived raw materials, low cost feedstocks are essential, since the feedstock typically contributes to >60% of the overall production cost. To date, the focus has been on the use of lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks. The exploitation of biomass, however, is reliant on an energy intensive pre-treatment step, and thereafter, the addition of costly exogenous hydrolytic enzymes needed to convert the partially deconstructed biomass into the sugars needed by the fermentative process organisms. The costs involved are making the development of economic processes extremely challenging.

An exciting alternative is to use waste gases as the feedstock. Gas fermenting microbes are able to grow on C1 compounds, such as carbon monoxide/dioxide (CO/ CO2) and methane (CH4) derived from non-food sources, converting this low cost carbon into the chemicals and fuels modern society needs. Fortunately, C1 gases are an abundant waste resource and may be, such as waste gases from industry (e.g. steel manufacturing, oil refining, coal and natural/shale gas) as well as 'synthesis gas' (CO and H2) produced from sustainable resources, such as biomass and domestic/ agricultural wastes. This enables the production of fuels and chemicals in any industrialized geography without the consumption of valuable food or land resources.

AIM: SBRC Nottingham, together with Sheffield and Oxford Brookes, have been awarded a 4-year BBSRC-China partnership award with the Key Laboratory of Synthetic Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai. The partnership aims to exploit gas fermentation to produce chemical commodities. The partnership will implement process improvements through the identification of new microbial chassis, or the modification of existing chassis, that are more effective in using C1 compounds as feedstocks.

STRATEGY: We will explore a number of chassis and assemble the necessary tools (parts and modules) and strategies that can be used in the selected microbes to implement synthetic routes to product formation using synthetic biology approaches. Our preferred chassis will be selected from a class of bacteria known as 'acetogens'. A number of pathways are already available in biobrick format with the SBRC that can be incorporated into the selected chassis. Feedstock options will include methanol in addition to synthesis gas/ Syngas (CO and H2). The DTP studentship will become fully integrated in this partnership, and have the option of spending 3 months on secondment in China in 2017 at a CAS institute in Shanghai.

THE TRAINING: This translational project will be carried out within the BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) at Nottingham which comprises 90+ graduate and postdoctoral researchers ( and a current budget of £27M. The study will allow for training in a unique multidisciplinary environment, incorporating anaerobic gas fermentation, Synthetic Biology, microbial physiology, metabolic engineering and computer modelling. The student will have the opportunity to travel to, and work in, CHINA, as well as in Sheffield and Oxford.


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Description Genetic tools and approaches were developed to genetically engineer previously genetically intractable bacteria of industrial relevance as consumers of greenhouse gas emissions.
Approaches have also been expanded for genetically engineering similar previously identified microbial chassis.
Exploitation Route This work provides a toolset which can be applied in metabolic engineering and development of promising C1 consuming organisms. These can then be utilised to create a circular economy in which the C1 gas feedstock is converted to industrially relevant chemical compounds.
Sectors Construction,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology