A New Paper In Synthetic Biology Sheds “Light” On Future

To imagine unlocking the abilities of photosynthetic organisms is to imagine harvesting the power of the sun. These possibilities, along with their inherent challenges, actually have been imagined by Himadri Pakrasi and colleagues in a paper published in Frontiers in Microbiology, providing an exciting example of the role that synthetic biology plays in our lives.

Renewable fuels resulting in lowered green house emissions, the ability to develop sustainably sourced chemicals, and even direct conversion of energy from the sun to high value protein without the necessity of killing animals, all from sunlight and carbon dioxide, are truly realistic goals. These are just a few of the benefits that could be realized through the development of a redesigned strain of light-harvesting cyanobacteria.

Before the development of modern synthetic biology tools development of these amazing organisms sadly lagged behind those that already exist for other, non-light-harvesting, microbes. A scientist eager to understand, modify and utilize cyanobacteria back in the 1990′s would have been frustrated by the lack of good tools for genetic manipulation. Everything was built around modifying E.coli and yeast, and the conventional wisdom was to pull interesting genes into the conventional industrial organisms if you need to engineer them. Otherwise…one might just take the naturally occurring products from cyanobacteria and try to grow them efficiently. Not a bad plan, but one which forgoes a lot of possibilities afforded by genetic engineering. Pakrasi and colleagues make the case that with today’s synthetic biology tools, we can get in and tinker with cyano directly.

The unique advantages of cyanobacteria in the development of biotechnology applications, not to mention the resulting improved understanding of photosynthesis, makes this line of inquiry increasingly important.

Pakrasi and partners also review a number of valuable lines of inquiry. Methods, old and new, for constructing targeted mutants in cyanobacterial strains, which genetic parts are most vital for the development of cyanobacterial synthetic biology, and review of the most recent methods used to build genome-scale models of cyanobacterial metabolism, which are then utilized in measuring the properties of autotrophic metabolism, are some of the directions that the Pakrasi team has taken.

Cyanobacteria is the perfect example of the ancient holding the key to the future. The first photosynthetic oxygen-producing organisms to develop on Earth, they could be the foundation of technologies that could revolutionize and transform not only our economy, but, potentially, our very lives. It all began in our imagination, harnessing the power of the sun.

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  • Devon Stork

    It’s really neat to see that people are developing some of the tools that are necessary before true genomic engineering can be practiced on cyanobacteria. If we want to use cyanobacteria for anything, it’s really important that we can do all the basic manipulations that are taken for granted with other microbiological model organisms. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long to develop those capabilities this time.

    I just have to question how long it will be before cyanobacteria become industrially relevant. The big problem is that nobody really knows how to build a photobioreactor that can provide enough sunlight to enough bacteria with low enough cost to be commercial. The price of glucose-rich feed-stock from sugarcane is low enough that it’s almost always cheaper to grow sugarcane and feed that to the plant. It has the same outcome of getting energy from the sun and using it with bacteria, but instead of having to worry about all the complexities of photosynthesis you can rely on the efficiency of well-bred sugarcane and keep your reactor costs low and your metabolic pathway simple.

    I’m not saying that cyanobacteria won’t be relevant – I think they’ll be amazing when we develop the engineering necessary to grow them effectively, but I think the reactor design has to advance almost as much as the biology before cyanobacteria get cheaper then yeast or E. coli.