IISER Pune develops sustainable chemical manufacturing method for iGEM competition

PUNE: A team of undergraduate students of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune has carried out research for the prestigious iGEM (Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine) competition - an annual competition where student teams from across the globe work to solve real-world problems using synthetic biology
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Published on Aug 26, 2021 09:49 PM IST
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ByDheeraj Bengrut

PUNE: A team of undergraduate students of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune has carried out research for the prestigious iGEM (Internationally Genetically Engineered Machine) competition - an annual competition where student teams from across the globe work to solve real-world problems using synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to create novel biological systems or redesign existing ones using engineering principles.

The IISER team’s work involves developing an alternative method for chemical manufacturing that does not depend on fossil fuels and does not produce any new carbon emissions. The team is developing this idea in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals - climate action, clean energy, and sustainable production.

Likhith Chandragiri, a member of the team, said, “Carbon dioxide concentration levels in the atmosphere are higher now than at any other time in human history, and they are only projected to rise due to human activities. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which plays a crucial role in regulating the surface temperature of the planet.”

“As it continues to accumulate, it leads to a net increase in average global surface temperatures. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change due to global warming - from more extreme rainfall, drought, cyclones and wildfires to the extinction of numerous plant and animal species. If global warming continues unabated, it spells truly catastrophic effects on humanity and the natural world,” Chandragiri said.

The IISER team is developing a solution to tackle a major source of carbon emissions - the use of fossil fuels to generate industrial chemicals like fuels, plastics, pharmaceuticals, synthetic fabrics, etc. These chemicals are principally made of carbon, which is sourced from coal and crude oil as raw materials. Inevitably, some of this carbon is lost into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas. The students aim to create a sustainable alternative method for chemical manufacturing that does not depend on fossil fuels and does not produce any new carbon emissions. Their two-step technique first traps some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere photosynthetically to generate renewable carbon reserves; and then produces chemicals from these reserves.

Another member, Misaal Bedi, explained, “Each step is facilitated by a genetically engineered species of bacteria. The carbon dioxide is taken up by Synechococcus Elongatus, which belongs to a group of photosynthetic bacteria called cyanobacteria. The stored carbon is recycled by the microbiologist’s favourite, Escherichia Coli. To avoid any wasteful extra steps, the two will be grown in the same vessel. The cyanobacteria will be genetically modified to continually fix carbon dioxide as sucrose (table sugar) and to secrete it out. E. Coli will be engineered to be capable of consuming this sucrose and converting it into chemicals such as Butanol, a biofuel.”

The team envisions their co-culture system as a sort of microbial cell factory which can sustainably produce industrial chemicals from light and carbon dioxide. Switching one strain of E. Coli with another appropriately modified strain will allow one to switch which final product one wishes to manufacture.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022