The UK could gain an edge in the race to become the most efficient converters of waste into energy when a £4million research project comes to fruition. Experts at the University of Exeter in collaboration with The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), Newcastle University and Imperial College have been awarded funding for ground-breaking research into creating biomethane, which can be burned to produce energy.
This is one of six large projects across the country to receive a share of £20 million, designed to revolutionise the application of synthetic biology in bio-industries. The funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has been awarded to synthetic biology projects which could ultimately help to promote economic growth.
Dr Orkun Soyer of the University of Exeter is leading the research into anaerobic digestion (AD), in which waste is broken down by microbes in the absence of oxygen to release methane. At the moment the AD industry is relatively small in the UK, while thousands of large-scale and rural plants exist in countries like Germany, China and India. One of the main hurdles facing this technology is that little is known about how and why the microorganisms work to break down the material, which can include food waste and animal dung.
Dr Soyer, an expert in systems biology, said: “We are delighted to secure such a significant grant, which will enable us to carry out ground-breaking research into biomethane production. This process produces energy from waste, and could help provide answers to two key questions facing society: both how to dispose of increasing amounts of food and animal waste, and how to ensure we can meet our energy requirements into the future. A by-product of anaerobic digestion can be used as fertiliser, so our research could also have a large impact on agriculture.
“Anaerobic digestion units contain thousands of different types of microbial species working as a community. At the moment we know very little about which of these microbes is crucial to the process and how we could manipulate them to promote communities of bacteria to work more efficiently. If we can do that, AD could become a viable energy solution, and the UK could be at the forefront of that revolution. One major issue for existing facilities for example is robustness. At the moment, these microbial communities can suddenly stop functioning, resulting in no methane being produced. . If we could understand what makes communities robust and engineer a solution, it could be the key to a more sustainable future through AD.”
The research team will examine the process in two ways. Firstly, they will scrutinise the natural process, by examining the microbial communities sampled from both bioreactors and nature. By going through several stages of selecting samples which give the highest yield (a process called directed evolution) they will derive the most efficient communities and analyse their composition and dynamics.
Secondly they will engineer synthetic communities using mathematical models of community function. Selected microbes will be experimentally put together to form much simpler synthetic communities compared to their natural counterparts, but that are potentially equally efficient in producing methane.
The research being undertaken at TGAC based in Norwich is led by Dr David Swarbreck and will focus on metagenomics and metatranscriptomic analysis of samples collected from the directed evolution experiments. Deep sequencing enabled by Next Generation platforms will be employed to gain insight into the community composition and functional properties of biomethane producing microbial communities.
The grants which will fund the research are part of BBSRC’s Strategic Longer and Larger Awards (sLoLa), which give world-leading teams the time and resources to address areas of key strategic importance.
The awards were supported by contributions of nearly £3million from industry and three of the awards were co-funded in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which contributed nearly £2million.
The announcement comes following the government’s response to the Synthetic Biology Roadmap which sets out a shared vision for realising the potential of synthetic biology in the UK. The response welcomed recommendations to develop an internationally recognised world-leading synthetic biology research base.