Researchers from Michigan State University have engineered “molecular Velcro into cyanobacteria with the result being a boost to the microalgae’s ability to produce biofuels and potentially other products. The MSU scientists designed a surface display system to attach the blue-green algae to yeast and other surfaces. Early results show that this technology may prove the efficiency of harvesting algae and open new doors to improve the homes of artificial microbial communities as a means to produce more sustainable biofuel and bioproduct production.
“Inadequate cyanobacterial toolkits limited our ability to come up with biological solutions,” said Derek Fedeson, MSU graduate student and the study’s co-lead author. “So, we wanted to add another tool to the toolbox to expand the capacity of these bacteria, which can harness solar energy for the production of useful compounds.”
In the study, published in the ACS Synthetic Biology, the team focused on surface proteins of cyanobacteria to enable it to bind to specifically engineered surfaces. One particular strain of yeast has a molecular hook on its surface, which Federson engineered the bacteria to produce a “loop” on this surface. One challenge, said Federson, was getting the yeast to stick to the algae when they bumped into each other. Another challenge: the energy intensity and cost of separating microscopic cells and recovering the sugar.
“By changing the surface technology, we’ve proven that we can program these cyanobacteria for new interspecies and intercellular interactions,” said Danny Ducat, MSU assistant professor in the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory and the study’s senior author. “In terms of biofuels, engineered cyanobacteria strains could greatly reduce the high production costs by opening up new avenues for harvesting cellular biomass. For example, we can genetically program these cells to recognize and stick to specific materials, reducing the need for specialized and expensive centrifuges or filters.”
Future studies will explore how to improve the surface display and make the process more efficient.