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ARPA-E awarding $3.5M to Berkeley Lab project to develop novel enzymatic gas-to-liquids pathway

On 19 September, the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded $34 million to 15 projects to find advanced biocatalyst technologies that can convert natural gas to liquid fuel for transportation. (Earlier post.) The largest award in the technical area of High-Efficiency Biological Methane Activation in the new program, (Reducing Emissions using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy—REMOTE, earlier post), provides $3.5 million to a team led by Dr. Christer Jansson at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to work on a novel methylation process to convert natural gas to liquid transportation fuels.

The project, called “Enzyme Engineering for Direct Methane Conversion,” involves designing a novel enzyme—a PEP methyltransferase (PEPMase)—by engineering an existing enzyme to accept methane instead of carbon dioxide. This methylation process, which does not exist in nature, will be used as the basis for the gas-to-liquids pathway.

Methyltransferases are a group of enzymes that move a methyl group—an alkyl derived from methane, containing one carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms—from a donor to an acceptor.

Jansson is Senior Staff Scientist and Deputy Program Lead - Bioenergy in the Earth Sciences Division at LBNL. The research team also includes Dr. John Tainer’s group at the LBNL Life Sciences Division and several industrial partners.

Jansson’s group at LBNL focuses on plant, algal, and cyanobacterial biochemistry and molecular biology. Specific areas of interest are photosynthesis, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, and metabolic engineering of plants and cyanobacteria for biofuels and carbon sequestration. Earlier this year, a team from LBNL led by Jansson published a paper on the engineering of the bacterium Synechocystis 6803 for the enhanced photosynthetic conversion of CO2 to alkanes.

Jansson is also leading another APRA-E-funded project at LBNL: FOLIUM - Installation of Hydrocarbon Accumulating Pathways in Tobacco Leaves. LBNL is modifying tobacco to enable it to directly produce fuel molecules in its leaves for use as a biofuel.

LBNL is incorporating traits for hydrocarbon biosynthesis from cyanobacteria and algae, and enhancing light utilization and carbon uptake in tobacco, improving the efficiency of photosynthesis so more fuel can be produced in the leaves. The tobacco-generated biofuels can be processed for gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel alternatives. LBNL is also working to optimize methods for planting, cultivating and harvesting tobacco to increase biomass production several-fold over the level of traditional growing techniques.

That project, which started 1 January 2012 and runs through the end of next year, received $4,839,876 from ARPA-E.


  • Ping Hu, Sharon Borglin, Nina A. Kamennaya, Liang Chen, Hanwool Park, Laura Mahoney, Aleksandra Kijac, George Shan, Krystle L. Chavarría, Chunmin Zhang, Nigel W.T. Quinn, David Wemmer, Hoi-Ying Holman, Christer Jansson (2013) Metabolic phenotyping of the cyanobacterium Synechocystis 6803 engineered for production of alkanes and free fatty acids, Applied Energy, Volume 102, Pages 850-859 doi: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2012.08.047


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