INTERVIEW / What Opportunities Does Erb Seen Merck in Photosynthesis 2.0 | News

by Stefanie Haxel

FRANKFURT (Dow Jones) – A team led by biologist and chemist Tobias Erb from the Institute of Earth Microbiology Max Planck in Marburg explores how to separate the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into new chemical building blocks for other useful products: for example antibiotics, food or basic chemicals. Technology can also contribute to climate change. In an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, Erb speaks of “photosynthesis 2.0”.

Erb received a € 1 million “Future Insight Prize” for this research on Wednesday from the Darmstadt-based pharmaceutical and specialty chemicals group Merck.

“We want to rethink photosynthesis, we basically want to find new ways to eliminate CO2,” says Erb, who is also the managing director of the institute. Scientists want not only to extract the necessary biocatalysts from nature, but also to reinvent them in the laboratory to bind carbon dioxide faster and more efficiently – i.e. capture it and incorporate it into compounds – than nature could.

“So we want to increase photosynthesis, come up with an alternative operating system for photosynthesis” – says the scientist.

Toolbox with enzymes

They have already proved that the idea actually works on a small scale. The Erb team has discovered a new class of CO2-binding enzymes and also developed enzymes in the laboratory that can bind carbon dioxide and turn it into building blocks for other valuable chemical products. They were inspired by the metabolism of microorganisms. They now have a whole “suite” of different enzymes at their disposal, each of which enables different biochemical reactions.

The research group also showed direct conversion of CO2 into pentadecane, a key component of diesel fuel, and into polyketide, which is the precursor to the antibiotic.

The next step is to launch the new “operating system” on the computer in a portable sense, that is, test it on a larger scale. It could be a living cell, such as a bacterial cell or an algae, and it could also be a plant in the long run, says Erb. It is a long process. “We’ll have to go a few more rounds to optimize and improve this. It will be a question of breeding or molecular genetics, ”he says.

Scientists also want to see how their ‘operating system’ works in simple, artificially created cells. “So on a small scale we have small cells, so to speak, that bind CO2 but are not alive,” says Erb.

“These are the two directions we want to go. Both are conceivable and both have their advantages and disadvantages, and now we want to take a look: what is the best hardware for our software. ”

At the end of the day, antibiotics, fuel, and even food may appear. However, it may take several more years for the product to be ready for the market. “We are fundamental researchers,” qualifies Erb. “We are at the very beginning of the pipeline.”

On the one hand, Erb wants to use the € 1 million prize money to bring in outstanding scientists to its team in Marburg to further develop the project, such as genetic engineers. On the other hand, it wants to invest in technology.

Faster and more efficient than nature

In nature, around 400 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide are removed from the air each year by natural photosynthesis – as much as is released again in the natural carbon cycle by geological and biological processes. About 10 gigatonnes of CO2 are produced by humans each year, says Erb. This is enough to drive climate change. “Our new photosynthesis could be 20 percent more efficient, and it could also bind CO2 about 10 times faster,” he says.

Erb does not believe, however, that “our method is the only solution. It will be a combination of not switching to other types of electricity, but it will also be an important part of seeing carbon as a raw material and closing a sustainable cycle. ‘

The Darmstadt-based DAX Group, Merck, first awarded the Future Insight Prize in 2019, recognizing scientists who are making remarkable contributions to innovating in terms of health, nutrition and energy that are important to the future of mankind.

250 candidates for the award

Erb was the clear winner of this year’s research award compared to 250 candidates, says CEO Belen Garijo, who is also a member of a jury of more than 80 renowned scientists from around the world. “I think this reflects the enormous potential of its discovery, the potential to turn CO2 into sustainable energy sources and other useful products.”

Merck does not benefit directly from award winners. “But I hope that most of these great technologies will be commercialized so that we and the next generation can reap the benefits,” says Garijo. The group accepts the winning candidates and technology proposals on its website. “Applications have so far been flowing in from all over the world and will help us choose new topics for the Future Insight Prize,” says the doctor who has headed the DAX group since May 2021.

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(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 13, 2022 11:30 ET (3:30 PM GMT)

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