November 2, 2011

$2.2 million grant enables algae research

A recent $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy is allowing Washington University to take part in a collaborative study on fuel-generating bacteria.

The goal of the project is to find ways to modify certain photosynthetic bacteria to generate clean energy more efficiently, Dr. Himadri B. Pakrasi, George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, said.

Pakrasi, the current director of the University’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy & Sustainability (I-CARES), is one of the principal researchers involved in the project.

“It turns out that we can modify the sugar generated by each of these cell factories to build chemical precursors that are key to the production of biofuels and many other [useful] chemicals,” he said.

Pakrasi said research on photosynthetic energy has been ongoing. It centers on the natural process of photosynthesis which is carried out by all plant cells and which uses water, carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce sugar without creating harmful waste products.

Specifically, researchers use cyanobacteria, a form of blue-green algae, because they can easily manipulate its genetic composition.

The three-year study, which began last month, is a collaborative effort with Purdue University and Pennsylvania State University. Pakrasi said that working with the other institutions will enable the project to achieve greater success.

“No individual research group has all the expertise needed to make success. It is the collective effort that produces the beautiful product,” Pakrasi said.

While photosynthetic energy is quickly garnering widespread attention, with many laboratories around the world performing similar research, the inefficiency of the processes involved has prevented its commercial use.

This particular research links together two modern approaches: systems and synthetic biology. The systems approach involves studying the cyanobacterium to understand its metabolism and the way it interacts with other things. The synthetic approach uses this information to combine the bacterium with new parts, such as genes or proteins, to make important molecules like polyethylene, which is important in the rubber industry.

Researchers involved expect the first paper of the project to be published early in the summer of 2012.

“This century should be totally dedicated toward solving [the] whole issue of energy,” Dr. Pakrasi said. “And…students should be passionate about it.”

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