Microbial Genomics for Biofuels and Co-Products from Biorefining Processes

With increasing concerns over world dependence on depleting oil resources, scientists are looking for ways to develop viable, renewable, and sustainable energy systems that can displace global dependence on fossil fuel sources of energy. One leading alternative fuel source is biological production, wherein fuels such as ethanol are produced from cellulosic feed stocks. Current production of bioethanol involves microbial fermentation of sugars derived from sugarcane (in Brazil) or the starch from grain (predominantly corn in the US and eastern Canada, and wheat in the prairie provinces of Canada), followed by the distillation of the ethanol from the fermentation broths. However the use of grain-based agricultural feedstocks for fuel rather than for food has driven up food prices so scientists are looking for abundant, low-cost alternatives for the production of commercially viable biofuels.

University of Manitoba researchers Richard Sparling, Microbiology, and David Levin, Biosystems Engineering, are co-leaders in a $10.4 million international collaboration looking for new ways to convert waste materials (including hemp hurds, flax shives, and woodchips) into fuels (biofuels) and other products. The four-year project is managed by Genome Prairie, funded by Genome Canada; the Province of Manitoba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mines; and several other research partners.

The focus of the research at the University of Manitoba is on the bacteria that convert ligno-cellulosics (a component of straw and woodchips) to ethanol, hydrogen and plastics (bioplastics). Their research team will genetically engineer bacteria and create communities of microorganisms that will generate these products in a way that will be commercially viable. Increasing the economic viability of these processes depends upon the development of well-characterized cultures of bacteria with specific properties. This requires detailed understanding of both the genomics (genes and their function) and metabolism of both the bacteria that use cellulose to make biofuels and the bacteria that synthesize high-value co-products such as bioplastics. Abundant, low-cost feedstocks are also essential for commercial viability of biofuel production.

The mission of the proposed research is to establish Canada as an international leader in the production of biofuels and bioplastics. Sparling and Levin have assembled a multidisciplinary research team with the combined expertise to accomplish this goal, involving professionals in biotechnology, microbiology, biochemistry, genomics, bioinformatics, proteomics, engineering and political science. The highly qualified personnel trained by this team will expand the much needed pool of scientists and engineers with critical expertise in biotechnology and biofuels, bioethics and social economics. While this research will stimulate the development of made-in-Canada biofuels and co-product technologies, it will also consider the ethical, environmental, legal and economic issues that impact biorefinery processes and market opportunities.