From CO2 to Biofuel
Bielefeld University students participate in iGEM competition
Ten Bielefeld students are engineering a bacterium which uses surplus electrical energy from renewable energy sources and carbon dioxide (CO2) in order to produce a biofuel. Current problems serve as an incentive for their project: an absence of infrastructure for the storage and transport of renewable energies, increasing CO2 emissions, and the impending scarcity of resources. The students are developing possible solutions with which they are participating in this year’s iGEM (“International Genetically Engineered Machine”) competition. iGEM is an international student competition in the field of synthetic biology, which has been held in Boston, USA, since 2004.
Biofuel is the aspired result of the process
The bacteria are cultivated in a reverse microbial fuel cell (rMFC) where the electrical energy is transferred to the bacteria, which in turn use it for growth and metabolism. Another intermediate step in order to establish the production of a biofuel is necessary. The students are therefore working on enabling their bacteria to bind CO2. To do this, they are introducing a metabolic pathway from plants into the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli). This pathway is part of photosynthesis and able to fix carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbon is then converted by the bacteria into carbon-containing biofuels or other economically important products. A positive side effect of this process is that CO2, a chemical compound considered as one of the major causes of global warming, is removed from the air in this way.
“The deposits of all fossil fuels – for instance, coal, gas or oil – are limited,” explains Sebastian Blunk, one of the students involved. “Hence, we have decided to go for the production of a biofuel in order to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels.” The Bielefeld team has chosen to produce the chemical substance isobutanol, which could be used as a fuel additive for cars. In contrast to the commonly used fuel supplement ethanol, the energy density of isobutanol is higher. Theoretically, this means a smaller quantity of this fuel is needed to operate a vehicle. To produce isobutanol, the students combine different naturally occurring genes with the help of synthetic biology in their model E. coli organisms. Hence, the latter will be able to produce the biofuel by the aid of carbon fixation.
The students have already reported their first success: they have managed to isolate and combine genes for the production of isobutanol. Furthermore, the team has started test runs with the rMFC prototype. At the competition in Boston, they want to present their full application.
Beyond the laboratory work
Besides the work in the laboratory, the students aim to communicate the ideas of their project to the public. At the Friedrich-von Bodelschwingh grammar school, they supervised molecular biology experiments during an advanced course in biology. They were also involved in the organisation of this year’s Pupils Academy at the Center for Biotechnology at Bielefeld University (CeBiTec). At the NRW Day (North Rhine-Westphalia Day) in Bielefeld, the team had a booth on the marketplace, offering different experiments for children and explaining synthetic biology and their iGEM project to visitors.
In addition to their hard work on the project, the team also has to find sponsors to cover their expenses: materials, lab equipment and travelling expenses come to over 30,000 euros. The students, who are reading Molecular Biotechnology, Genome Based Systems Biology, Bioinformatics and Genome Research as well as Informatics for the Natural Sciences, have already managed to gain some sponsors for their projects. Additionally, the team has won support from the “SYNENERGENE” project. SYNENERGENE is a European project with the objective of supporting research and innovation in synthetic biology. The support is not only of financial nature. The iGEM team is further supported in the development of real-world application scenarios as well as in assessing the impact of their project on society. Their academic departments, the Faculty of Biology and the Faculty of Technology of Bielefeld University, also support the students. Professor Dr. Jörn Kalinowski from the CeBiTec is the team’s advisor.
This year, the iGEM competition celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Therefore there are no continental semi-finals and all teams advance directly to the final Giant Jamboree in Boston to present their projects. What started as a course of study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has attracted an increasing number of participants, growing from five teams in the first year to over 240 at this year’s competition. In all, some 2,500 participants from 32 countries are competing this year. “Internationally, iGEM is the premier student competition in the field of synthetic biology. The young academics have the opportunity to cooperate and compete with students from most prestigious universities world-wide and thus acquire essential insights for their studies and professional career,” summarises Professor Kalinowski. Bielefeld University is competing for the fifth time in succession, having successfully qualified for the final jamboree each year from 2010 to 2013. Last year the Bielefeld team became European champion and First Runner Up in the world final.
Further information is available online at:
Annika Fust, Bielefeld University
Phone: +49 (0)521 106-12285 or +49 (0)152-23017418