While the sun has been hiding here in Finland, I have managed to finally finish reading three very interesting books: Suomi öljyn jälkeen (Rauli Partanen, Harri Paloheimo & Heikki Waris, “Finland after oil"), Elämämme perusteista (Lasse Nordlund & Maria Dorf, “Foundations of life"), and Regenesis: How synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves (George Church & Ed Regis). Although the offset and viewpoint of the books are very different, they all predominantly focus on what is required for the survival of the nature and human society, now and in the future. The main question is how energy is produced in our society. The concept of sustainable energy production often culminates in traffic fuels, hydrocarbon based compounds that we are still long dependent on. While we are slowly starting to displace the first generation sugar and oil containing food crops with more sustainable lignocellulose as the biofuel feedstock, we still stumble to the ineffective and enervating conversion processes.
Despite the transitions, the ultimate source of carbon in biofuels is atmospheric carbon dioxide. Assimilation of carbon from the atmosphere is based on a biochemical process called carbon fixation. Carbon fixation is a foundational biological process of life that we see around us today. The KEGG database (the Kyoto Encyclopedia of Genes and Genomes), which is a collection of biological pathways and many others, describes at least six different pathways for carbon fixation. These pathways differ from each other by the source of energy needed for carbon fixation; for example plants and cyanobacteria fix carbon dioxide using solar energy (photosynthetic CO2 fixation). Some bacteria utilize a pathway called Wood-Ljungdahl for non-photosynthetic CO2 fixation. Very interestingly, some of these bacteria are able to accept electrons (energy) for the CO2 fixation directly from electrodes they can grow on. As the man-made solar technologies are more effective in capturing solar energy than biological photosynthesis, utilizing these bacteria for biofuel production is appealing. In our research, we employ these bacteria to capture atmospheric CO2which in turn we convert to suitable hydrocarbons for traffic fuels by means of synthetic biology.
Maybe today, when finally the sun started to warm up also here in Tampere, I can try to gather the viewpoints of those three books in the context of our research: from the foundations of life (carbon fixation) towards Finland after oil (biofuel) by the help of synthetic biology.
Text: Ville Santala