Collaborative project to screen microbes for industrial manufacturing potential kicks-off

A new collaborative project involving NCIMB and the University of Edinburgh has kicked-off. The project will screen microorganisms from the NCIMB culture collection for their ability to perform new chemical transformations of interest to the UK’s industrial biotechnology and manufacturing sectors. The ultimate aim is to replace current energy- and waste-intensive petrochemical transformations with renewable bio-based alternatives that can be applied to high-value manufacturing. NCIMB’s culture collection – the National Collection of Industrial, Food and Marine Bacteria is one of the UK’s key biological resources and includes thousands of microbes that are environmentally important or have industrial applications.

Many manufacturing industries are heavily dependent on fossil fuels – not just for the energy required to run factories and production plants, but also for the chemicals that are used as feedstocks and catalysts.

As society seeks to cut pollution and tackle climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels, the issue of sustainable chemical production becomes ever more important. It is essential that new sustainable ways of producing commodity and speciality chemicals are found. Biotechnology offers a route to sustainable manufacturing through harnessing the biochemical pathways of microorganisms to produce high value chemicals, with less energy usage and waste than traditional manufacturing approaches.

The project aims to replace current traditional synthetic methods with bio-transformations and will include the recycling of persistent chemical wastes, an environmental and economically costly problem on a large scale, for which there is currently no biological solution.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at Edinburgh University and Principal Investigator Dr Stephen Wallace said: “Discussions with the chemical industry highlighted two chemical reactions for which there are currently no sustainable or biological alternatives available.  One is an important reaction within pharmaceutical manufacture, the other is applicable to the recycling of persistent waste products.

“Advances in gene sequencing mean that microbes can now be screened more rapidly than before for their potential to carry out specific metabolic functions that meet industrial requirements. However, in order to do that screening it is necessary to first find an organism that carries out that function and then identify the gene sequence that is associated with it. This basic work still needs done for many biochemical pathways, and this is holding back efforts to identify new microbes with industrial potential.  NCIMB’s culture collection is a fantastic biological resource and seemed the obvious starting point for this work.”

Commenting on the project, NCIMB’s culture collection curator Dr Samantha Law said “There are many examples of bacteria in our culture collection that have been studied with respect to their ability to carry out chemical transformations such as the production of acetone or butanol. However, I firmly believe that the full potential of the collection as an industrial biotechnology resource has yet to be realised.

NCIMB’s Culture Collection Curator Dr Samantha Law

“Although microorganisms may be viewed as simple single-celled organisms, they are amazingly diverse in terms of the biochemical reactions that they can perform. Over millions of years microbes have evolved to develop the diversity of biochemical pathways that allow them to survive, compete, and thrive in all kinds of environments that are inhospitable to other kinds of living things. This project, which will screen 76 strains from our culture collection, is an exciting step in identifying how some of that biological diversity can be applied to tackle key industrial issues, and I am delighted to be collaborating with Stephen and his research group and Edinburgh University to achieve that.

The project has been funded by The High Value Biorenewables Network – a BBSRC Network in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy.