Concerns about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, and rising gasoline prices have spurred a strong interest in bioenergy in the United States. Ecology Department scientists are contributing their expertise in bacterial and plant metabolism, molecular microbiology, genome-enabled enzyme discovery, and bioengineering to a scientific challenge of great national importance: the efficient production of biofuels. Ecology Department personnel hold key positions in a wide range of biofuel-related projects, which include discovery of fuel-related biosynthetic enzymes and heterologous expression or re-engineering of fuel-related metabolic pathways in bacteria (including cyanobacteria), algae, and plants. Bioenergy projects with key personnel from the Ecology Department have funding from a variety of sources, including the DOE's ARPA-E program (the Earth Sciences Department has been granted two ARPA-E awards) and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a DOE-funded ($125 million, 5-year) research center for advanced lignocellulosic biofuels that includes two Directors from the Earth Sciences Division.
- Biofuels Pathways department of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) - The Biofuels Pathways Department (led by Harry Beller) is focusing on the discovery of naturally occurring enzymes that, when integrated with metabolic pathways for biofuel precursors (such as fatty acids), will enable the biosynthesis of advanced biofuels in engineered host microbes. Overall, they have taken a genome-enabled approach and have studied both pure bacterial cultures and natural microbial communities known to produce the biofuels of interest. In part, gene discovery has been based on analysis of (meta)genomic, transcriptomic, or (meta)proteomic data, in silico metabolic reconstruction, and mass spectrometric assays of the activity of candidate gene products in vivo (by heterologous expression in engineered microbes) and in vitro.
(Two LBL NewsCenter stories on this work)
- Integrated Microbial ElectroCatalytic System (ARPA-E) - This team is developing an integrated Microbial-ElectroCatalytic (MEC) system consisting of Ralstonia eutropha as a chemolithoautotrophic host for metabolic engineering coupled to a small-molecule electrocatalyst for the production of biofuels from CO2 and H2. In this strategy, R. eutropha is being engineered to produce hydrocarbons through the fatty-acid and isoprenoid biosynthesis pathways. Steven Singer (ESD) is the PI and Harry Beller (ESD) is a co-PI, along with Nathan Hillson and Swapnil Chhabra.
- CyanoFuels - We design and engineer freshwater and marine cyanobacteria for enhanced carbon uptake and production of high-density liquid biofuels. Christer Jansson is the PI.
- FOLIUM (ARPA-E) - The objective here is to establish tobacco as a platform for foliar production of advanced hydrocarbon fuels. This project is a collaboration with UC Berkeley, the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), and the Kentucky Tobacco Research & Development Center (KTRDC). Christer Jansson is the PI, and Tasios Melis, Peggy Lemaux, Kris Niyogi, and David Wemmer at UCB, Cheryl Kerfeld at JGI, and Orlando Chambers and Ling Yuan at KTRDC are Co-PIs.
(One LBL NewsCenter story and one video on this work)
- Source-Sink - We study the regulation of source-sink communication in cereals such as barley, rice and sorghum as a means to enhance carbon uptake for biofuel and food production. Christer Jansson is the PI.