NREL Launches Synthetic Biology Project To Advance Biofuel Discovery Technologies With LanzaTech, Northwestern, and Yale

Genome Engineering and Machine Learning Aim To Rapidly Identify Solutions for Industry-Scale, Carbon-Negative Production of Biofuels and Biochemicals

Jan. 31, 2023 | By Brooke Van Zandt | Contact media relations

Illustration of a gloved hand removing a piece from a DNA molecule.
Image from iStock

The pathway that leads us away from unsustainable fossil fuel consumption is not straight and narrow but filled with many branches of possibilities. One of those branches—carbon-negative production of biofuels and biochemicals—is the focus of a biosystems design project recently launched by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), LanzaTech NZ Inc. (LanzaTech), Northwestern University, and Yale University.

“Our team at NREL is thrilled to be able to leverage our expertise in bacterial strain development and machine learning toward decarbonized production of fuels and chemicals with leaders in the areas of systems biology, genome engineering, cell-free conversion, and gas fermentation,” said Chris Johnson, NREL’s senior scientist who will co-lead the project.

“Partnering with NREL made sense for us,” said a LanzaTech representative. “We have already demonstrated successful synthetic biology projects. We sought out NREL researchers for their expertise in deep learning to predict and engineer improved enzymes to convert carbon feedstocks.” LanzaTech has demonstrated more than 100 products through its Synthetic Biology platform.

Scientists know that we can harness biological processes to create carbon-negative fuels and chemicals by relying on microorganisms that naturally consume carbon oxides. But we are still challenged to produce these products on a sufficiently large scale to transform the fuel and chemical manufacturing industry, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. A plentiful resource of carbon already exists with which to address this problem: A 2020 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 4.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted that year. Some experts estimate the direct economic impact of bio-based products, services, and processes at up to $4 trillion per year globally over the next 10 years, according to a 2022 Congressional Research Service report.

Designing Ideal Bacteria Genomes

Circular Economy for Energy Materials

A circular economy for energy materials reduces waste and preserves resources by designing materials and products with reuse, recycling, and upcycling in mind from the start.

Northwestern, Yale, LanzaTech, and NREL are joining forces to create carbon-consuming bacteria capable of producing viable industrial-scale biofuels. Rather than relying on time-consuming trial-and-error methods to manipulate a bacterium’s genome, the team will use a predictive design approach that encompasses genome engineering and machine learning tools.

The team will apply these tools to three biological test beds: anaerobic, aerobic, and cell-free systems. Each of these complementary systems is capable of converting carbon dioxide into the types of useful fuel and chemical intermediates that are currently made by petrochemical resources.

“We selected these particular test beds because they represent distinct biomanufacturing scenarios,” Johnson explained. “If we can design systems that perform well under these conditions, we can create biofuels and bioproducts whose production process actually removes carbon dioxide from the production-consumption life cycle. That can impact the manufacturing industry on the transformative scale we need to achieve a sustainable energy economy.”

Carbon-Negative Biofuels for a Circular Economy

This biosystems design project is funded through the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research Genomic Sciences Program.

By developing biological systems for carbon-negative production of fuel and chemical intermediates, “we’re leading the charge to address the challenge of generating carbon-negative biofuels at the systems level, and that’s an exciting place to be as more public and private sector funding focuses on carbon-negative biomanufacturing,” Johnson said. “We have to be able to scale our solutions, and this project helps us down that path.”

Learn more about NREL's bioenergy research.