Steve Albers: Genetic Engineering For a Better Fuel

This is the last interview in our Biofuel Mini Series.

As a high school teacher for the past 5 years, I was fortunate enough to learn about and understand the true value of building a strong and capable foundation for any endeavor. Our world population continues to rise, and mankind’s need for energy of every type continues to increase. Because of this, it is evident that we will have to find alternatives to our current methods of energy generation, and biofuels will play a large role in attaining this goal. My personal targets as a part of the MAS BioEnergy program here at CSU are to: 1. Organize and comprehend the main basic tenants of the biofuel field, 2. Contribute to a durable solution to the biofuel field through modification of microorganisms utilizing the processes of metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, and 3. Participate in generating a durable American biofuel industry focused on best-fit practices. As part of any emerging field like the biofuels industry, many hurdles must be passed to generate products that are truly sustainable. New and novel ways of thinking about the organisms we use as cropping systems, the types of energy molecules generated by these organisms, and the way these organisms utilize the resources around us must be focused on to tackle this extensive problem.

Featured Work:


The astaxanthin production culture is on the left, while the wild type (normal cells) culture is on the right

Utilizing microbes for the production of molecules like nutraceuticals, therapeutic drugs, feedstock intermediates like sucrose, and biofuels is a promising approach.   Heterologous gene expression within microbes has continued to mature, with advances being made in understanding the metabolic burden placed on cell systems (1, 2).  Heterologous gene expression can cause extensive metabolic burden and physiological changes that mimic responses to extreme temperatures, amino acid depletion, and starvation (1, 3).  Strategies like control of gene expression via promoter engineering, codon optimization, and heterologous gene insertion have shown to be vital in managing these cellular conditions (3-5).

While most engineering research focuses on heterotrophic systems, photosynthetic Eubacteria such as Synechocystis provide benefits over heterotrophic systems. Photosynthetic Eubacteria are capable of using solar energy and atmospheric carbon for growth and product production, exhibit rapid doubling times, and have high homology to the plastids of algae and plants (6-12). Because of this, research into engineering mechanisms within Synechocystis may provide insights into pathway control within plastids of green algae and plants.

There are several examples of engineering in Synechocystis species in the current literature (13-16).  To date, engineering these organisms has demonstrated modest gains in product production, similar to early E. coli engineering.  I argue that in order to utilize photosynthetic microbes as production platforms, molecular tools must be generated, tested, and quantified in various conditions.  Little work has focused on expression control of heterologous metabolic pathways in photosynthetic organisms.  I believe that tools optimized for Synechocystis can have a great impact in increasing molecules produced from gene pathways.

My research has two main aims.  I plan to utilize Synechocystis as a production platform for the 1) generation of the nutraceutical, astaxanthin, and 2) the generation of the biofuel molecule, bisabolene.  To attain these goals, my current work has focused on understanding gene expression at the transcriptional level. I have engineered over 10 promoter constructs that control gene expression in unique ways in Synechocystis. I have generated a chemically inducible construct within Synechocystis capable of repression as well as induction.  I have modified this inducible construct to produce new constructs with varying levels of expression strength. My work also includes modifications to a commonly used photosynthetic promoter, PpsbAII.  My nucleotide modifications have been able to increase basil expression by three fold of this commonly utilized promoter. Manuscripts of this work are currently being modified for publication.  My work has allowed several projects in the Peebles lab to increase gene expression of heterologous genes within Synechocystis and I plan to generate high titers of product through use of my synthesized promoter constructs.

In addition to my research objectives of my Ph.D. candidacy, I also develop outreach modules for the high school classroom.  As a former high school biology classroom teacher, I strive to develop modules that are capable of bringing cutting edge science topics to the high school classroom.  I also work as a licensing assistant at CSU Ventures, the technology transfer office at CSU.  We manage all the intellectual property generated at CSU and help researchers more effectively perform their work in research labs at CSU.

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Interview with Steve Albers

About Amber Numamoto

Amber Numamoto is a Japanese-American senior who has a passion for cultures and languages. Amber is an International Studies major at Colorado State University with a minor in Japanese and an additional concentration in Asian Studies. From 2009 to 2010 Amber gained the opportunity to study abroad in Yamagata, Japan, which enabled her to expand her Japanese language skills and made her fall in love with traveling as well as studying and experiencing other cultures. Amber recently returned from a trip in Italy, Poland, Turkey, and the UK further expanding her knowledge and experience of global relations. Amber has experience teaching English as a second language and has volunteered in many on site campus activities. She holds a part time job while maintaining an academic scholarship and enjoys to do side hobbies such as painting and playing music. Amber is the youngest of three girls and enjoys spending time with her family. Upon graduating in May 2013 Amber plans to return to Japan and continue a career in international relations.
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