University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 106/2021, 29 July 2021
Bacteria under current: Volkswagen Foundation funds long-term research agenda at the University of Bayreuth
Linking new electrochemical processes with the production of high-value substances by enzymes and microorganisms is the goal of a still fledgling research approach, bioelectrosynthesis. Prof. Dr. Frank Hahn, head of a research group in organic chemistry at the University of Bayreuth, is seeking to advance this approach in the field of polyketides, a class of substances of significant importance in pharmacy and biomedicine. He will receive funding of approximately € 1 million from the Volkswagen Foundation over the next seven years as part of its "Momentum" initiative.
Bioactive polyketides are natural substances that are used, for example, as powerful antibiotics, cancer drugs, and active agents to combat parasites. Although being structurally highly diverse, they have one thing in common. They are produced by special enzymes called polyketide synthases. Prof. Dr. Frank Hahn has been researching these enzymes for many years in order to understand their function more precisely, and to be able to use them for biotechnological applications.
But polyketide synthases are not only of growing interest for research with regard to the production of pharmacologically relevant natural products. They are increasingly moving into focus for the production of a variety of other high-value chemical products, for example fine chemicals. Polyketide synthases could well make an important contribution to replacing processes currently still based on oil and gas in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries with more sustainable alternatives.
In fact, the research agenda funded by the Volkswagen Foundation is now aiming at a completely new form of biotechnological application of polyketide synthases, and its starting point is electrosynthesis-competent bacteria. They are to be enabled to absorb sustainably generated electricity and CO2 from their environment and to form certain small molecules thereby. These can then be used by polyketide synthases as building blocks for drugs and chemicals.
Synthesising high-value chemical and pharmaceutical products with the help of polyketide synthases in electrosynthesis-competent bacteria is a completely new field of application for bioelectrosynthesis, or BES for short.
"Bioelectrosynthesis is increasingly seen by international experts as an important element of a future bioeconomy. Indeed, our new research programme, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, combines a variety of bioeconomic aspects: the efficient use of regeneratively generated electricity, the fixation of CO2, and a sustainable production of important chemical compounds. The results are also likely to be of interest to industrial companies offering products and services in the fields of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology," says Hahn.
With its "Momentum" funding initiative, the Volkswagen Foundation is reaching out to scientists who have held their first lifetime professorship for three to five years. A longer-term funding is intended to give them the opportunity to develop a creative, promising research agenda for the further development of the content and strategy of their professorship, and to implement it in the long term.