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Synthetic biology and biotechnology

life promoting
From top: Close up of Moss Table in which electricity is generated directly by photosynthesis; Algal cultures.
With the need to reduce carbon emissions, and the dwindling reserves of fossil oil and gas, liquid fuels derived from plant material – biofuels – are an attractive source of energy. To minimize competition for land, water and other resources between energy crops and those grown for food, we must optimize plant productivity. Research is underway to understand what limits photosynthetic efficiency, and to explore ways of improving yields by optimizing existing processes, or introducing novel approaches such as broadening the wavelengths of light captured by plants.

Algae offer an alternative source of bioenergy. Many species grow very fast, produce large amounts of fuel molecules such as lipids, and can be grown on marginal land so do not compete with crop plants. The Algal Biotechnology Consortium (a collaboration between plant scientists, biochemists and engineers) is working to address some of the challenges for implementation of algal biodiesel production, including understanding lipid metabolism, and algal community biology, as well as conducting life-cycle analysis for sustainability.

We collaborate with industrial partners and end-users, including establishing pilot-scale operations. A novel biophotovoltaic device, in which electricity is generated directly by photosynthesis in algae and plants, is also being developed.

Applying biological solutions to industrial processes has the potential to produce bulk and fine chemicals, again replacing dependence on fossil fuel. We are generating synthetic biology tools for manipulation of microalgae to facilitate this. Engineering design principles for plant systems has been pioneered in our Department, and we run an active and very successful iGEM team each year. We are an active partner in the InCrops Project, an industry-facing organization facilitating commercialisation of new biorenewable and low carbon products from alternative and non-food crops. We are also involved in increasing both energy awareness and public understanding of the opportunities and challenges biotechnology and bioenergy provide.