Lorentz Center - Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms from 30 Mar 2009 through 3 Apr 2009
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    Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms
    from 30 Mar 2009 through 3 Apr 2009

Report solar biofuels from microorganisms

Scientific Report


The aim of the workshop was to assess the potential of the light-driven oxidation of water and the evolution of hydrogen and carbon based fuels by existing photosynthetic microorganisms for the development of a sustainable infrastructure for the efficient production of biofuels. Exploration and optimization of direct routes for the conversion of solar energy by photosynthesis can lead to the production of solar fuels with much higher efficiency than current practice. These third generation biofuels require a systematic elimination of losses coupled to optimization of downstream conversion into fuel in minimally redundant systems that are redesigned and optimized by a variety of systems biology and synthetic biology methods. IN the workshop novel concepts for durable solar energy conversion of microorganisms to collect solar radiation, split water and convert atmospheric CO2 into environmentally clean fuels were discussed. A systems-based approach is required, ultimately achieving end-to-end integration of individual process steps.

In the workshop the challenges, the potential, and the roadmap towards sustainable biofuel production based on photosynthesis was discussed. Photosynthesizers like plants and bacteria are abundant in the biosphere and use solar energy to make oxygen from water and convert atmospheric CO2 into carbohydrates. The focus was on microorganisms, bacteria and algae, some of which can also produce hydrogen. Over the past decade remarkable progress has been achieved in understanding the basic mechanisms of photosynthesis from a structural and a mechanistic point of view. We are now at a stage that we can strive to understand and exploit the photosynthetic process at a higher level of complexity, that of membranes and the whole cell, in a direct relationship with biofuel production. To achieve this a link between the photosynthetic community and new methods from genomics will be fruitful.

A next step will be to carry this to a higher level of scientific effort, where Europe is far behind the US and other parts of the world. The focus of this European science efforts needs to be in microorganisms not biomass, and new species will be needed, metabolic control will be necessary, and the community will have to team up with electrochemists. The integration of the new technologies into the existing technological infrastructure will be essential. The organizers of the workshop will feed the outcome of the discussions into the Eurocores effort that is being developed for the ESF, to work towards a European research grid that contributes to the larger international effort, similar to the human genome project of the recent past. There is a need to bring in more people on the fuel side and to form a consortium while sharpening the aims and goals. The ESF could fulfill a strong role in communication with member organizations in different countries, as Europe is lacking an organization like the DOE in the US. It will be important to have research projects that are application-oriented, not only science-oriented.

The workshop was connected to the Leiden University honours program and this connection worked very well. The concept allows to combine multidisciplinarity with scientific depth, and leads to community building. The students were smoothly taken up and were instructed not to try to understand everything, but do cherry picking for themselves. Students were able to passively understand most, if not all, of the lectures, while there was sufficient diversity for everyone to select an element for active participation in depth, in the form of writing a short research proposal, instead of doing an exam. This is an important observation, as the honours program has been struggling to find a balance between multidisciplinarity and depth. Attempts to make all the lectures fully comprehensible for all students in a multidisciplinary setting have consistently resulted in superficiality, and this was strictly avoided in this workshop, which was held fully in line with the strong international discipline of the scientific community. The only difference was that the speakers were informed in advance that the honours students would be present and were asked to bring an educational dimension in their lecture. All speakers were also given ample time for their lecture, 1 hour, to make this possible.

The workshop was organized very well by the staff of the Lorentz centre, and the support of Corrie Kuster and Martje Kruk in organizing the workshop is gratefully acknowledged. Special thanks also goes to the scientific coordinator, Henriette Jensenius, for moderating the board in the proposition stage for this topic, which is not entirely without controversy.