Campus research: Meeting demands with bacteria

With Earth’s population at a whopping 7.1 billion, resource consumption is a serious concern among the academic community. The ever-increasing demand for goods has pressured manufacturers to employ new techniques to increase production and minimize costs. Experts of all disciplines located all across the world are answering this call, with each bringing their specialties to the table. Colorado School of Mines, widely known for its contributions to the study of renewable energies, is now home to a new project. A stimulating interview, with Dr. Nanette Boyle, revealed groundwork details of this research proposal. Based in the field of synthetic biology, Dr. Boyle hopes to take advantage of cyanobacteria for the production of fuels and pharmaceuticals.

The term “synthetic biology” calls on a different image for each individual. Simply put, it is the design and manipulation of biological substances for purposeful use. Over the past century, synthetic biology has improved the standard of living for many. One of the oldest applications of synthetic biology is the manipulation of the E. coli bacteria for the production of human insulin. The E. coli acts as a host, and the insulin sample needing to be replicated is placed inside the bacteria. The E. coli then naturally reproduces, replicating the insulin in the process. Agents are then added to separate the insulin from the bacteria, resulting in a ready to use product. Since then, E. coli bacteria has been used to develop vaccines, produce pharmaceuticals and biofuels, and synthesize enzymes for a wide variety of uses. Dr. Boyle states, however, that in order for this method to work, “You still have to provide it a carbon source.” The carbon comes from the sugars of certain crop plants and “that is competing with our food supply.” This is where the Doctor steps in, Nanette wishes to improve upon this practice by replacing E. coli with cyanobacteria.

After only a brief description of cyanobacteria, it became clear that E. coli is up against fierce competition. As mentioned, E. coli requires sugar to fuel the process. According to Dr. Boyle, cyanobacteria not only produce their own energy through photosynthesis, but are “Much more efficient at harvesting light than crop plants are.” The bacteria can generate more energy on their own than an equivalent mass of crop plants. Boyle continues by saying, “Cyanobacteria have a much more diverse metabolism than E. coli.” The larger metabolism allows for more possibilities with regards to generating products. As well fitted as the bacteria seem to be, applying the methods used on E. coli is easier said than done.

Being in the infancy stage at Mines, concrete project goals have yet to be defined. The first step is to design methodology of manipulating the cyanobacteria. Once complete, the future research team will be able to work on improving the durability of the cyanobacteria, making it a viable option in areas of extreme conditions. From there, it is a matter of finding substances that can be produced through the cyanobacteria with only solar and water input. These objectives are tentative, and will develop as progress is made.

Dr. Boyle described her interest in synthetic engineering as starting in graduate school. Growing up on a farm, Nanette has seen the advances in crop engineering first hand, and noted the increase in yields. She took this interest with her to college where she worked first-hand in this field on projects such as the metabolic modeling of algae. Dr. Boyle expressed her excitement for this particular study, and would like to share it with the community. Undergraduate students interested in a future internship with this project should contact Dr. Boyle.

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