Climate change represents potentially the biggest environmental threat to human kind since our existence. Still, our chemical industry relies mostly on the usage of fossil resources for the production of various products, such as plastics, chemicals, or fuels. In my work with microalgae, we describe an alternative process that sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere and allows a carbon-neutral production of all these products. This could allow us to transform our industry: away from fossil resources and towards renewable, biological alternatives.
Using science to develop technological solutions for environmental problems
My journey began when I did one year of civil-service in Shrewsbury, a small town in the UK close to the Welsh boarder. There, I worked at an environmental education centre and guided groups of students through the hills of west-England. I worked with many great ecologists, who taught me about the fragility and importance of ecosystems on our planet. I realised the tremendous negative impact of us humans on our planet and came to the conclusion that something had to be done to change this situation.
Back home in Germany, I first studied biotechnology in Aachen and then transferred to UC Berkeley in California. There, I met utilitarian philosopher and bio-ethicist Peter Singer for the first time, who greatly inspired my thinking.
From now on, I wanted to apply my scientific expertise to develop technological solutions for our pressing environmental problems, such as climate change or the biodiversity loss. Biotechnology promised to offer a perfect tool for this, since it allows the replacement of fossil-based processes with biological alternatives. To deepen my scientific skills, I continued with a Master in microbiology at the University of Tuebingen in Germany where I chose the subject “bioethics” as a minor, which further strengthened my belief that we have an ethical obligation to change the world for the better.
During a semester abroad, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I investigated the biological sand crust, a thin layer of biological matter which covers the top of desert sand. It turned out that this crust was mostly formed by cyanobacteria, which are tiny little bacteria also referred to as “microalgae”. The reason for this is that, just like algae, cyanobacteria are able to grow photosynthetically, allowing them to uptake atmospheric CO2 and use this as a carbon source for growth. As a by-product of this process, oxygen is produced and released to the atmosphere. This very “sustainable” way of growing sparked my interest in these little organisms. If we would be able to harness this process biotechnologically, we could use these cyanobacteria as tiny, biological machines, which would convert atmospheric CO2 into our products of interest.
Back in Tuebingen, I decided that I would like to continue working with cyanobacteria. Throughout my PhD (University of Tuebingen) in the group of Prof. Karl Forchhammer, I applied metabolic engineering strategies to optimize the cyanobacterial metabolism for the production of sustainable bioplastics. Such products could allow us to replace conventional, oil-based plastics for packaging, which currently contribute to climate change. Furthermore, this new kind of bioplastics is completely biodegradable, thereby relieving the burden of plastic trash to the ocean. Cyanobacteria produce this new kind of bioplastics naturally, but only in very small amounts, making this process not economically feasible. But after four years of intense research, my dream came true: we were able to completely change the cyanobacterial cell, which was now composed of over 80 percent of valuable bioplastic.
This work proved what great biological potential the cyanobacteria harbour for the industrial production of commonly used goods. However, all of my results were based on laboratory-scale experiments. To have a substantial impact on our environment, the process needed to be scaled up.
From lab to industry: Scaling up the process
I reached out to the University of British Columbia because the city of Vancouver is known for its ambitions to become more sustainable, and UBC seemed like an ideal place to bring my research to the next level.
With Prof. Steven Hallam, I found a researcher who shared my vision about a sustainable future. He and an aspiring PhD student of his lab, Avery Noonan, had already started a project with cyanobacteria. They aimed to establish a high-throughput method for the genetic optimization of cyanobacteria. For this, they teamed up with a local company, AlgaBloom, which provides large-scale photobioreactors for the mass-cultivation of cyanobacteria – an ideal environment for further developing my academic ambitions.
In the first part of my project at UBC, I aim to describe the organism we are working with: a new, yet undescribed, fast-growing cyanobacterium. For this, we exploit classic microbiological as well as -omics approaches. We are also interested in the interaction of our cyanobacterium with its microbial community. Many cyanobacteria live within a complex environment with other microbes, where some are symbiotic and others are parasitic. By better understanding those interactions, we hope to be able to optimize them and thereby improve the growth of our cyanobacterium.
With all of this, we aim to make the production of cyanobacteria more economically feasible and thereby contribute our share to prevent climate change.
Written by: Dr. Moritz Koch, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Hallam Lab
Edited by: Laryssa Vachon, Communications Coordinator (Department of Microbiology and Immunology)
About the Author:
Aside from his work in the lab, Moritz Koch is actively engaged in different initiatives which advocate for a societal and political shift towards more sustainability. He is always open for exchange and happy to connect with other researchers to discuss how we can make our world a better place.
- Bachelor and Master scholarship by the “Konrad Adenauer Foundation”
- PhD scholarship by the “Studienstiftung”
- PhD thesis award by the “VAAM” for the best PhD thesis in microbiology