How microbes can help the planet and create energy

September 21, 2018

From our inner gut to the deep earth and ocean, microbes can live just about anywhere. And this gives them an exciting potential – to provide renewable and sustainable energy sources while helping remove contaminants from the environment.

They have the potential to act as natural catalysts, such as protein enzymes, to perform chemical transformations on organic compounds.

In many cases, these compounds are being used to make energy-rich products such as biodiesel, methane, and hydrogen gases.

If we can identify those products and pathways, we can replicate them, be it in pharmaceutical, nutritional, chemical and energy-producing processes.

First, though, we need to understand how the microbes manage to use metabolic pathways to process molecules they find in the environment – and that takes an interdisciplinary approach integrating bioinformatics, microbiology, molecular biology, and chemistry.

Scientists at the Masdar Institute are delving into this new and potentially profitable science.

Using high-throughput sequencing – in which many pieces of DNA or RNA are read at the same time, allowing much faster results – we are exploring a range of issues, from removing contaminants from the environment to using microbes to produce energy-rich molecules, such as methane or hydrogen.

One project, led by Dr Farrukh Ahmad, is exploring ways environmental microbes can help remove chemicals from environmental water supplies, making water safer for use.

His research group is isolating microorganisms that can degrade man-made industrial compounds for environmental bio-remediation.

They use high throughput sequencing to identify the chemical pathways involved, and to develop processes that can help with decontamination.

Another group, led by Dr Lina Yousef, is looking at the messenger RNA – the molecules that provide information for chemical pathways – from actively transcribed genes.

They hope to gain an understanding of how microbes evolved to adapt the UAE’s extreme environments, and of how the evolution of biochemical pathways can be directed for the purposes of bioremediation and energy production.

Another colleague, Dr Jorge Rodriguez, is developing mathematical models describing how microbes are involved in waste water regeneration and in producing biofuels from organic waste in waste water.

His lab is looking at the metabolic profile of a reed bed microbial ecosystem that removes contaminants from waste water.

A second project looks at the production of methane or hydrogen from anaerobic fermentation of waste water.

Bringing computing to bear on the issue, Dr Andreas Henschel is developing algorithms to identify and extract new metabolic pathways from large genomic databases.

This again should help identify microbial pathways with the potential for bioremediation and energy production.

As the last member of the team, I am working to isolate microalgae from the UAE environment and study how they can be used to provide energy-rich molecules for food, pharmaceuticals, and biofuels production.

Again using high-throughput sequencing, my lab focuses on understanding the metabolic potential of each species of microalgae.

These isolates can then be used to clean up waste water, or to help mitigation of CO2 by using environmental CO2 as a source of carbon for growth.

With this mix of interdisciplinary experts and high-tech equipment, we hope to position Abu Dhabi as a leader in microbial genomics for industrial and environmental applications in the Gulf and wider region, and to put the Masdar Institute at the forefront of environmental microbiology in the UAE.

Dr. Hector Hernandez is assistant professor of chemical engineering at Masdar