EU grant PHOTO.COMM awarded to develop and exploit synthetic photobiological communities – University of Copenhagen

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07 August 2012

EU grant PHOTO.COMM awarded to develop and exploit synthetic photobiological communities

The project PHOTO.COMM is a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) that has been funded through a grant of ca. four million EUR from the EU FP7 program. The project involves the utilization of microalgae for the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into chemicals and fuels, to directly replace finite fossil fuels and products. It will fund a consortium of 9 groups and provide trans-European training for a network of PhD students. 

Collaboration partners

The project PHOTO.COMM was proposed with the purpose of “Design and engineering of photosynthetic aquatic communities for sustainable industrial use”. This will involve extensive collaboration between the group of Professor Poul Erik Jensen (Coordinator, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen) with groups from the University of Warwick (headed by Professor Colin Robinson), and from the Universities of Cambridge, Turku, Freiburg and Technion (Israel Institute of Technology). 

The project furthermore includes close collaboration with three European companies, AlgaFuel, Novagreen and Algae Biotech, who will test strains under full production conditions in state of the art photobioreactors. The aim is the development of novel, carbon-neutral production platforms and the ultimate establishment of state of the art photobioreactor technology in Denmark. 

Background and purpose

Industrial biotechnology is essential for the creation of an efficient, sustainable, knowledge-based economy, and there is an increasing demand for novel processes and products. PHOTO.COMM involves the utilization of microalgae for the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into chemicals and fuels, to directly replace finite fossil fuels and products. PHOTO.COMM will generate an entirely novel production system for a range of high-value plant products that are in demand by pharmaceutical and other key sectors. The researchers will also strengthen the core of photobiological metabolism by innovative approaches to enhance photosynthesis and carbon-assimilation and deliver new approaches to create valuable end-products. 

Bio-active terpenoids, one example of high-value products, are complex plant compounds, and terpenoid-based pharmaceuticals include compounds with analgesic, antimicrobial and antifungal, contraceptive as well as psychoactive properties. Prominent examples of high-value are the terpenoids artimesinin and taxol, which are outstanding anti-malaria and anti-cancer drugs. Unfortunately terpenoids are difficult or impossible to synthesise by chemical means, and hence almost invariably harvested from the native plant species in minute amounts. The key enzymes in their synthesis are a series of cytochrome P450s that are located in the endoplasmic reticulum. PHOTO.COMM will use a synthetic biology approach to engineer photosynthetic organisms that produce specific terpenoids in large amounts. It relies on recent breakthroughs in which P450s have been relocated to the chloroplast, attached to photosystem I and shown to be driven by photosynthetic electron transport for a more efficient production.

Education

The project will involve training of early stage researchers (PhD students) and postdoctoral fellows who have demonstrated excellence and ambition. The PhD students and postdoctoral fellows will collaborate to develop a unique platform based on emerging technology and science. The new technologies will be at the forefront of emerging European biotechnology. 

PHOTO.COMM will provide an exciting environment where the young researchers will absorb and implement state-of-the-art analytical methods, intellectual property and business principles and multi-disciplinary science. They will obtain extensive training and practical experience in a close collaboration between universities and companies. These next-generation scientists and their technologies are expected to contribute towards a future Europe in which economically- and environmentally-sustainable photosynthetic organisms supply both commodities and energy.