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UW Crest with engineering background
July 26, 2021

Pfleger is part of project engineering cyanobacteria as a biofuel production platform

Written By: Staff

A new, $1.5 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant brings together experts from three institutions to parse the metabolism of a blue-green algae that holds great promise for biofuel production.

 Brian Pfleger
Brian Pfleger

The team includes Brian Pfleger, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is led by Jamey Young, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Vanderbilt University.

The team will take a systems biology approach to identify how cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can be engineered to produce large amounts of lipids in the form of free fatty acids. Significantly, free fatty acids secreted by cyanobacteria are more easily recovered than lipids typically produced by green algae.

“Lipid-based products that can be converted to biodiesel or other value-added biochemicals represent one of the most promising platforms for petrochemicals replacement,” Young says.

Cyanobacteria engineered for high yields of a fatty acid are a potential platform for biofuel production that does not compete with food sources and agricultural land.

Cyanobacteria are already capable of producing lipids directly from sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide using photosynthesis, but not at the rates and quantities necessary to sustain a commercial biofuel process. The goal of this new project is to understand how lipid metabolism is regulated in cyanobacteria so host cells can be engineered for high-yield production of medium-chain free fatty acids, which are readily converted into fuels.

Researchers will use the strain Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002, a fast-growing cyanobacteria that is tolerant to heat and brackish water. The organism’s flexibility makes it especially attractive to DOE as a biomanufacturing host because its growth does not compete with production of crops or other food sources. The species can be grown using wastewater resources and without organic sources of carbon, such as sugar, on land that is unsuitable for agriculture.

The Young Lab’s expertise is in measuring metabolic processes using metabolomics and stable isotopes. The team also includes Professors Carl Johnson and John McLean at Vanderbilt as well as Doug Allen and Bradley Evans of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The research builds on a prior $1.5 million DOE grant, also led by Young, under which the team created research tools for analyzing and controlling cyanobacterial metabolism. “Now the focus is to take the tools we developed and leverage them toward optimizing an important metabolic pathway for producing renewable fuels and chemicals,” Young says.

The Young, McLean, Allen and Evans labs have expertise in measuring metabolic processes using metabolomics and stable isotopes. The Pfleger and Johnson labs are experts in molecular biology and metabolic engineering of cyanobacteria. By combining their research skill sets to identify metabolic control points and bottlenecks in cyanobacterial fatty acid metabolism, the team plans to engineer host cells to enhance lipid production while also boosting cell growth and stress tolerance.

The grant is part of a $45.5 million DOE program to support research geared towards understanding and harnessing nature’s biological processes to produce clean biofuels and bioproducts.

Brian Pfleger is the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Professor in chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A version of this story was originally published by Vanderbilt University.