INTERVIEW / What Opportunities Does Erb Seen Merck in Photosynthesis 2.0

INTERVIEW WITH A DJ / What Opportunities Does Erb Seen, Merck Award Winner in Photosynthesis 2.0

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”.

For this research, Erb will receive a “Future Insight Price” of EUR 1 million from the pharmaceutical and specialist chemicals company Merck in Darmstadt on Wednesday.

“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 can.

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

Ein "Werkzeugkasten" mit Enzymen 

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 “toolbox” 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 a 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. According to Erb, it could be a living cell, such as a bacterial cell or an alga, and it could also be a plant in the long run. It is a long process. “We’re going to have to go through several 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 they’re not alive,” says Erb.

“These are the two directions we want to follow. 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, or, of course, food may appear. However, it may take several more years for a product to be ready for the market. “We are fundamental researchers,” says 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.

Schneller und effizienter als die Natur 

In nature, about 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 annually, says Erb. This is enough to drive climate change. “Our new photosynthesis could be 20% 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 also an important part of seeing carbon as a raw material and closing a sustainable cycle. ‘

The Darmstadt-based Merck Group first awarded the Future Insight Prize in 2019, annually honoring scientists for 35 years who have made remarkable contributions to innovating in the health, nutrition and energy categories important to the future of mankind.

250 Preis-Kandidaten 

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 the prize winners. “But of course 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 adopts on its website the proposals of the best candidates and technologies. “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.

Contact to the author: stefanie.haxel@wsj.com

DJG / sha / smh

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

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

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