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Introducing designed molecules to genetically modified bacteria activates an otherwise inactive enzyme to begin producing hydrogen.

Inspired by nature, researchers have developed a new method to produce hydrogen from bacteria. They use biological ‘hydrogen factories’ that are modified in the lab.

The method involves introducing designed molecules to genetically modified organisms to activate an otherwise inactive enzyme to begin producing hydrogen. A combination of synthetic chemistry and biology in other words.

Hydrogen is an environmentally friendly alternative to today’s coal- and oil-based fuels and a lot of research is being done on how it can be produced on a large scale.

Gustav Berggren and his research team are seeking inspiration from nature’s own hydrogen factories, bacteria that have produced hydrogen for billions of years. But it is also necessary to modify nature’s solutions.

Optimising nature´s solutions

Even if biological systems are generally very effective and can work at or below room temperature, there is a problem: they have no natural interest in producing hydrogen since it wastes energy.

“This is why it is often difficult to take what nature gives us. Rather, we have to optimise it for our needs. In our research, we try to understand what nature does, but we cannot just take nature’s solutions, we have to modify them,” says Berggren.

Together with Professor Peter Lindblad, he has led a project where a hydrogen-producing enzyme from green algae was placed in a more easy-to-handle organism that can be cultivated in the lab, namely E. coli bacteria.

Converts bacteria into hydrogen factories

Illustration: Geektown

By manipulating the enzymes with molecules that can be produced in the lab, the researchers started the production of hydrogen in an organism where the enzymes do not actually belong.

“These artificially activated enzymes have proven to be fully functional and convert E. coli bacteria into cellular hydrogen factories,” says Lindblad.

Berggren explains:

“It’s just like a Formula 1 car. Even if a successful driver is sitting in the car, it won’t get anywhere without a race team and support. In the same way, it’s not enough to move the enzyme over to an organism; a support system of synthetic molecules also needs to be introduced to the cell to make it begin producing hydrogen.”

Applying the method to cyanobacteria

The researchers now plan to apply their unique method to cyanobacteria, which get their energy from sunlight. They also want to improve the artificial enzymes on a genetic level and modify the synthetic catalysts to further improve the process.

“If we succeed in refining the method as we plan to, it has the potential to make the biological production of hydrogen from sunlight and water significantly easier,” says Berggren.

 

1 June 2018