Engineering bacteria for industrially extreme conditions

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences


Challenge being addressed:
Biotechnological processes offer a greener alternative to many current chemical processes used in the production of a wide array of products, such as medicines, fuels and fine chemicals. In some instances, the conditions under which the bioprocess takes place are not suitable for most microorganisms and great strides have been made by synthetic biologists to address this issue when implementing new bioprocesses by engineering model organisms. The vision behind this proposal is to apply similar techniques to non-model organisms and increase the efficiency of the bioprocesses that they are involved in; specifically anaerobic digestion and the production of methane, hydrogen and other biofuels.

This studentship will include:
- Development of a genetic tool kit to allow engineering of selected microorganisms key to anaerobic digestion
- Examination of selected microorganism performance under industrially useful conditions, such as lower pH and higher pressure
- Design and engineering of non-model organisms for increased tolerance to the conditions found in anaerobic digestion and the novel process advances to be implemented by Blue Sky Bio
- Life cycle assessment for the developed bioprocess and its containment requirements

This project will use the innovative and disruptive technology of synthetic biology to revolutionise anaerobic digestion and other processes used in biomanufacturing industries. This research will make use of sustainable feedstocks and open up opportunities to develop long-term sustainable processes, allowing for the production of fuel from waste. These are key elements to the EPSRC's Productive Nation Ambitions.

Project Principle Investigator:
Dr. Louise Horsfall, is a Senior Lecturer in Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in applying Synthetic Biology to industrial and environmental challenges. Dr Horsfall is an associate director of the University's Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions, the elected co-chair of the Bioengineering and Bioprocessing Section of the European Federation of Biotechnology, a member of the EPSRC Early Career Forums in both Engineering and Manufacturing Research and she holds an EPSRC Early Career Fellowship.

Lukas Muhlbauer, graduated from the University of Edinburgh's MSc in Biotechnology programme with distinction.

Industry Support:
Blue Sky Bio is a UK clean-tech R&D micro-company that is developing disruptive, high-output, bioprocessed, renewable energy producing technologies. Blue Sky Bio are currently using specific microbes under optimized environmental conditions to improve microbial function and produce the biogases methane and hydrogen. However, there are limitations to this approach and Blue Sky Bio wish to explore the use of bacteria specifically engineered for use under more extreme conditions, such as lower pH and higher pressure. They will support this PhD studentship by providing a 3-month placement covering all expenses incurred by the student during this time, by attending quarterly review meetings, and by selecting the microorganisms key to their anaerobic digestion process, which will be used in this study.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/R512242/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2021
2106647 Studentship EP/R512242/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2021 Lukas Muhlbauer
Description This award is still in progress and none of the findings have been published, however as part of this award, the microbial community in a novel industrial bioreactor designed by the industrial partner to this project (BlueSkyBio Ltd.) was characterised. Compared to more widespread bioreactors, which are mainly single stage reactors, this reactor is a so-called "Anaerobic Baffled Reactor" (ABR), which consists of seven connected chambers. This project determined that the microbial community shifts along the reactor, suggesting that the seven chambers allow for the successful compartmentalisation of communities with distinct optimal growing conditions as the most abundant species at the front of the reactor are known to digest large molecules such as cellulose, while key organisms at the end of the reactor produce smaller molecules from sugars such as volatile fatty acids (VFAs). VFAs can be used as platform chemicals in industry, which is why the industrial partner is interested in increasing the amount of VFAs produced in the reactor. Therefore, the second objective of the project was to isolate key organisms found in the reactor and engineer them for increased VFA production and increased resilience to the harsh conditions found inside the reactor (e.g. low pH). Two organisms of the genus Clostridium associated with high yields of butyric acid have now been isolated and work has started to apply genetic tools to engineer them.
Exploitation Route The isolated (engineered) organisms might be used by the industrial partner to steer their bioreactor towards an increased production of desirable chemicals such as VFAs.
Sectors Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology