North Texas Daily

University professor discovers bacteria’s new role in reducing greenhouse gases

University professor discovers bacteria’s new role in reducing greenhouse gases

University professor discovers bacteria’s new role in reducing greenhouse gases
November 29
08:00 2022

University microbiology and molecular biology assistant professor Calvin Henard recently discovered methanotrophic bacteria can consume carbon dioxide and methane.

The greenhouse effect can potentially be reduced by feeding the methanotrophs these gases in the atmosphere. This discovery was made through Henard engineering methanotrophic bacteria to convert methane gas to bioplastics, biofuels and other valuable products in a lab.

“Our goal is to develop genetic tools so we can genetically engineer the organisms to make whatever we want them to make,” Henard said. “Right now, they make very few valuable byproducts [with] their metabolism.”

Now, Henard is beginning a three-year research project for mitigating greenhouse gases through methanotrophs. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and an Agile BioFoundry $1 million grant. The foundry is a coalition of labs in service to biomanufacturing directly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies office.

“This project, or part of it, is to further our understanding of the metabolism of the organism so we can put numbers to how much gas they eat,” Henard said.

Methanotrophs are microorganisms that consume methane for energy and can live in environments with or without oxygen because of their diverse electron acceptors.

“I hope by 2025 that we have an engineered organism that can make an appreciable amount of product to provide some numerical values on how much more work we need to do to get this to be adopted in industry,” Henard said.

Sreemoye Nath, a biochemistry and molecular biology doctoral student, is running a doctoral project under Henard’s research to determine how greenhouse gas is affecting bacteria and their physiology. Another goal is to find out how the increased use of methane and carbon dioxide can work.

“I’m almost done in the first part of my project, [which is] understanding the physiology like acids to see how things change and everything,” Nath said. “And the [for the] second part, we are kind of trying to increase the yield and also increase the production of methane.”

Nath works alongside Spencer Lee, a first-year biochemistry and molecular biology doctoral student.

“It’s kind of fun to be part of something that can have effects on the way that we interface greenhouse gases — methane and CO2 — all that stuff,” Lee said.

The daily routine of the lab takes place in the Science Research Building, where multiple projects are being worked on simultaneously. The doctoral students’ main objective is to complete one step at a time when working with methanotrophs and greenhouse gases.

“Really, the biggest thing we’ve done so far is just characterizing the role that carbon dioxide plays in gas consumption,” Lee said. “So, how adding carbon dioxide changes the amount methane gets eaten and oxidized to suit.”

In addition to Nath’s project, the research will also trace how carbon moves throughout the methanotrophic organism, which plant biochemistry professor Ana Paula Alonso will lead. This will allow the research team to create a roadmap of the movement throughout the bacteria and guide their engineering efforts.

Henard’s experience with methanotrophs began at the DOE National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. He continued this work until joining the university’s Department of Biological Sciences in 2021. The research is microbiology-focused, which lends itself to developing advanced genetic tools for increasing output and reducing genetic modification time for methanotrophs. His study was published in the Applied Environmental Microbiology Journal.

“I’ve been working in this space, which is methanotrophic bacteria, for probably like eight years now,” Henard said. “And during that time, we discovered a unique advantage of that can utilize both methane and carbon dioxide as a source.”

The predicted outcome of the research is to reduce human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

Image Courtesy of the University of North Texas

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Joaquin Fernandez

Joaquin Fernandez

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