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UGA/NCSU team engineers hyperthermophilic bacterium to produce industrial chemical building blocks from CO2 and H2; ARPA-E project

Researchers at the University of Georgia and North Carolina State University have used a unique temperature-dependent approach in engineering a hyperthermophilic archaeon, Pyrococcus furiosus to be able to use CO2 and hydrogen to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, one of the top 12 industrial chemical building blocks.

The research, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS), was supported by the Department of Energy as part of the Electrofuels Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) under Grant DE-AR0000081. (Earlier post.)

Microorganisms can be engineered to produce useful products, including chemicals and fuels from sugars derived from renewable feedstocks, such as plant biomass. An alternative method is to use low potential reducing power from non-biomass sources, such as hydrogen gas or electricity, to reduce carbon dioxide directly into products. This approach circumvents the overall low efficiency of photosynthesis and the production of sugar intermediates.

Although significant advances have been made in manipulating microorganisms to produce useful products from organic substrates, engineering them to use carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas has not been reported. Herein, we describe a unique temperature-dependent approach that confers on a microorganism (the archaeon Pyrococcus furiosus, which grows optimally on carbohydrates at 100°C) the capacity to use carbon dioxide, a reaction that it does not accomplish naturally.

—Keller et al.

The team altered P. furiosus via the heterologous expression of five genes of the carbon fixation cycle of the archaeon Metallosphaera sedula, which grows autotrophically at 73°C. The research team then used hydrogen gas to create a chemical reaction in the microorganism that incorporates carbon dioxide into 3-hydroxypropionic acid.

The reaction can be accomplished by cell-free extracts and by whole cells of the recombinant P. furiosus strain. The recombinant strain carries out the reaction at some 30 °C below the optimal growth temperature of the organism in conditions that support only minimal growth but maintain sufficient metabolic activity to sustain the production of 3-hydroxypropionate.

The team suggests that their approach can be expanded to produce other important organic chemicals, all through biological activation of carbon dioxide.

Basically, what we have done is create a microorganism that does with carbon dioxide exactly what plants do—absorb it and generate something useful. What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman. We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass.

This is an important first step that has great promise as an efficient and cost-effective method of producing fuels. In the future we will refine the process and begin testing it on larger scales.

—UGA Professor Michael Adams, corresponding author


  • Matthew W. Keller, Gerrit J. Schut, Gina L. Lipscomb, Angeli L. Menon, Ifeyinwa J. Iwuchukwu, Therese T. Leuko, Michael P. Thorgersen, William J. Nixon, Aaron S. Hawkins, Robert M. Kelly, and Michael W. W. Adams (2013) Exploiting microbial hyperthermophilicity to produce an industrial chemical, using hydrogen and carbon dioxide. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1222607110



Producing hydrogen is expensive.  If these bugs can be engineered to reduce CO2 using electrons, it'll remove a troublesome step from the process.


This is superb.
Any excess renewable (or nuclear) energy can be used to produce dirt-cheap H2, which can be transformed to chemicals without the need for expensive/rare catalists.

Even if 100% of transport is electric, we will still need a lot of chemicals.
Even food could be produced at unimaginable efficiency compared with today agriculture using this technique.


I don't understand the comments here.
As far as I can make out, this will not produce hydrogen, and indeed hydrogen may be used in the process, and with them carbon dioxide is made into hydrocarbons.


Hydrogen must be produced to feed these bugs.  It would be advantageous if they could use electrons directly as reducing agents, like the archaebacterial CO2 to methane process demonstrated a few years ago.

Roger Pham

This is great for manned mission to Mars or other interplanetary missions. Solar energy is used to make H2, then the CO2 is recycled from the space ship to make food stuffs.

This may also a way for future generations to overcome the drought problem that will destroy crops in the field, by producing food directly from H2 from solar or wind or nuclear energy, and CO2 in the air. Solar PV is one or two orders of magnitude (10-100x) more efficient than photosynthesis by plants, and requires almost no water, except occasional needs to clean the glass. We will thus be able to feed far more people than the current 7 billions people...may be 50-70 billions human beings and billions of pets and livestocks in the earth, yes, meat for everyone, and synthetic dietary fibers fortified with vitamins and minerals to replace vegetables...The earth feeding capacity will be increased by 10-100 folds more!!!

As far as fuel for transportation and home heating, it would be far cheaper and more efficient just to use the raw H2 from renewable energy, without any further synthetic step.

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