With a changing climate comes a need to change our perspective on how to mitigate its effects. While there has been significant effort in decreasing the planet’s carbon emissions, it’s become increasingly apparent that this alone may not be enough. New technologies centered on scrubbing the atmosphere of harmful greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide and methane, may be essential in preventing the worst of global warming.
Deepika Awasthi, a project scientist in the Biological Systems and Engineering Division, has an idea to capture both of these planet-warming gases by feeding them to a microbe, which will then produce malonic acid, a valuable biochemical found in a variety of products.
With funds from the Lab’s LDRD (Laboratory Directed Research and Development) program, Awasthi is engineering a methane-eating microbe, or methanotroph, to also incorporate carbon dioxide in its metabolism. Carbon dioxide being the most prevalent greenhouse gas and methane being one of the most powerfully warming gases in the atmosphere, Awasthi’s strategy provides the microbe with a double-whammy of climate-change fighting potential. Linked to current municipal waste streams or near natural gas-production areas, this engineered microbe could gulp up these gases before they cause harm to our climate. Combined with the production of malonic acid, with a potential billion-dollar market, it’s difficult to find a downside.
The challenges in the project lie in the process of introducing new metabolic pathways in a less-studied microbe. Because methanotrophs are not as widely understood as common bioengineered microbes like E.coli or Saccharomyces, the path to a success is longer and more fraught with obstacles. Awasthi hopes to improve efficiency by optimizing and streamlining the genetic engineering of methanotrophic bacteria using CRISPR-Cas9 technology and, funding permitting, testing multiple methanotrophic strains.
To read more about project leader Deepika Awasthi’s big idea, the challenges in working with methanotrophs, and how she sees the microbe being used in the real world, read the Q&A in the News Center.