Page path:

02.02.2010 The greatest Chemists

Microorganisms are “the greatest chemists” of our planet. As far as we know, every chemical reaction that is thermodynamically feasible is exploited by these organisms to sustain growth or at least survival.
FLTR: Taking samples in a lake and in the Wadden Sea, Microorganisms under a Microscope, Bioreactor in a laboratory.
The greatest chemists

Microorganisms are “the greatest chemists” of our planet. As far as we know, every chemical reaction that is thermodynamically feasible is exploited by these organisms to sustain growth or at least survival. Together, the actions of microbes comprise the biogeochemical element cycles, a vastly complicated metabolic network that is the basis of all life. It is currently estimated that the global microbial network consists of 10<sup>30 </sup>prokaryotes and 10<sup>31 </sup>viruses. For comparison, the universe contains only 10<sup>23 </sup>stars – to make matters worse, microorganisms are arguably more complicated than stars.
Indeed, metagenomes (the first molecular snapshots of microbial networks in the environment) demonstrate convincingly that we are still light-years away from understanding the feedback between the environment and its microbes at the molecular level. That is unfortunate, because such insight would have great fundamental and applied relevance, for example in bioprocess design, in prediction of feedback loops in global warming and in synthetic biology.
In this context, the collaboration between the Center for Biotechnology, University of Bielefeld and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen, was established. The two institutes have complementary interests: Metagenomics and Industrial Biotechnology in Bielefeld are matched with Environmental Microbiology and geochemistry in Bremen. The Junior group “Sustainable Energy Production” headed by Professor Olaf Kruse aims to achieve a proof of concept for methane production from solar energy that is ecomonically competitive at current fossil fuel prices and is ready for application within five years. This work is performed in Bielefeld.
Solar energy is generally explored as a source of electricity or hydrogen, whereas methane is generally only produced from organic wastes or fuel crops. However, the technology for a hydrogen ecomony is still very far away from application. Fuel crops and organic wastes can only replace fossil fuels to a limited extent. For methane all the infrastructure is already in place and photovoltaic, electrolytic and atmospheric carbon capture technology is already at a stage that it can be applied economically. The Sustainable Energy Production will seek to optimize the final step, production of methane from hydrogen at high pH.

In Bremen, the aim is to achieve predictive understanding of the effect of nitrogen fertilization on the carbon cycle. Nitrate turnover plays a key role in all major geochemical cycles, both as a source of nitrogen and as an electron acceptor for anaerobic respiration. Its natural abundance is severely affected by human activity; nowadays, every one out of three nitrogen atoms in the biosphere originates from fertilizer industry. The effect of fertilization on the atmospheric carbon dioxide budget is unknown but fertilization is associated with significant atmospheric build-up of nitrous oxide (N<sub>2</sub>O), a powerful greenhouse gas. It is unknown how the environmental conditions modulate the production of nitrous oxide.
For the latter project a prestigeous 1.7 Million Euro ERC grant was obtained from the European Research Council, effectively doubling the budget of the junior group. In total, 10 researchers are active now, divided over the two locations.
The general scientific approach consists of the selection of microbial communities in laboratory bioreactors. During selection the thermodynamic efficiency of these communities is monitored by high resolution calorimetry and metagenomics. This way a predictive thermodynamic model can be develop as well and metagenomic markers can be established that can later be applied to natural communities and to monitor biotechnological application, like methane production from hydrogen and nitrogen removal from wastewater.
The experimental concept of the bioreactors with high resolution calorimetry is currently being developed and close to completion. Most bioreactor cultivation will be performed in Bremen, whereas the sequencing will be performed in Bielefeld.

Dr. Marc Strous
+49 421 2028 822
[Bitte aktivieren Sie Javascript]


Dr. Manfred Schlösser
+49 421 2028 704
[Bitte aktivieren Sie Javascript]

Max-Planck-Institut für Marine Mikrobiologie
Celsiusstraße 1
D-28359 Bremen
Back to Top