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Synthetic biology, green algae and seaweed provide promise for sustainable fuels of the future

Sustainable fuels: synthetic biology, algae and seaweed  - 13 November 2013. iStock

Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, has announced major funding towards sustainable fuels during a visit to India. Over £4M of UK funding, with matched resource from India, has been awarded to four research projects that bring together expertise in sustainable bioenergy and biofuels from both countries.

The funding is a result of the Sustainable Bioenergy and Biofuels (SuBB) initiative funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research council (BBSRC) in the UK and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in India.

Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "This funding has enabled cross-disciplinary projects that underpin the generation and implementation of sustainable, advanced, bioenergy in order to address the urgent need to find alternatives to fossil fuels."

The announcement was made as a part of Sir Mark Walport's keynote address during RCUK India's fifth anniversary celebrations in New Delhi this week. These new projects form a part of the £150M strong UK-India research portfolio that RCUK India has facilitated since 2008.

Funded projects

The University of Nottingham and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology will collaborate to engineer enzymes, bacteria and bioconversion processes that will help to produce advanced biofuels from waste rice straw. The project, led by Professor Nigel Minton and Dr Syed Shams Yazdani, will receive £1.4M from BBSRC with matched resources from DBT.

Professor Nigel Minton said: "Rice is the third biggest crop grown in the world and the major staple crop for most tropical nations. Rice straw, left over from rice harvests in large quantities, doesn't have many agricultural uses and so hundreds of millions of tons is burned to dispose of it each year. This is wasteful and polluting, particularly if rice straw could be used to create biofuels."

The team hope to use synthetic biology to design bacterial strains capable of converting the straw into biofuel, after they have develop an enzyme cocktail optimised for deconstructing rice straw into the necessary raw materials for biofuel production.

In another project, Durham University and the Institute of Chemical Technology will work together in a bid to produce biofuel from seaweed. Green macroalgae, or seaweeds, are a common sight on UK shorelines and have astonishing growth rates. Dr John Bothwell and Prof Arvind M. Lali hope to take advantage of this to create sustainable energy by converting seaweeds into fuel. The project will receive £1M from BBSRC with matched resources from DBT.

Dr John Bothwell: "Using standard crop-breeding techniques, we hope to produce economically productive seaweed strains that can be grown safely and sustainably around the UK's coastline. We will also look at harnessing the natural processes by which seaweeds are broken down in order to make use of enzymes and microbes that are capable of converting the seaweed biomass into advanced biofuels."

The University of Sheffield and Bharathidasan University will investigate the possibility of using smaller water dwelling 'microalgae' to convert solar energy and carbon dioxide into the precursors of fuel. While making use of microalgae's natural abilities for industrial purposes has proven elusive, Dr Seetharaman Vaidyanathan and Prof Lakshmanan Uma believe that a greater understanding of their metabolism could help.

Dr Seetharaman Vaidyanathan said: "Development of sustainable processes that utilise microalgae to convert solar energy and carbon dioxide to biofuel precursors is attractive but has not been successful in making a difference to the energy economy so far.

"We believe that a greater understanding of microalgae metabolism, derived through a systems approach, will make a difference to this scenario and enable development of sustainable processes for bio-energy generation. We aim to combine UK and Indian facilities and expertise to carry out detailed systems level characterisation on selected isolates that will lead to manipulation of microalgae metabolism for enhanced productivities of biofuel precursors, through informed process optimisations and strain developments."

Bharathidasan University have already established a repository of marine microalgae which has over 500 microalgae isolates in its collection for investigation. The project will receive £1.2M from BBSRC with matched resources from DBT.

Dr Carole Llewellyn from Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Dr N Thajuddin of Bharathidasan University will also look at microalgae thanks to £700k from BBSRC and matched resources from DBT. This time the researchers will look at whole communities of microalgae and bacteria.

Currently, producing biofuel from microalgae would be too costly requiring many inputs, such as nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients to feed the microalgae. However, industrial wastewater could provide a solution as it has these nutrients in abundance already. In wastewater, several species of algae can be found together with a complement of inherent bacteria; these associated bacteria provide benefits in terms of helping to producing higher yields of the raw materials for biofuel.

Dr Carole Llewellyn explains: "We want to understand the complex and dynamic systems and interactions in wastewater communities. Currently we have a poor understanding on the composition, development, function and interactions occurring within these microalgae and bacteria communities. This funding will help us find out what is there, how they compare and what are they doing. This will be important if we want to produce biofuel from them as the quantity and quality that can be made will be related directly to the growth and the composition of the communities, which in turn is dependent on interactions within it."

The research will lead to characterised and optimised microalgal-bacterial communities that could be cultivated on wastewater to produce biomass for biofuel.

ENDS

Notes to editors

RCUK India: www.rcuk.ac.uk/international/Offices/OfficeinIndia

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