DOE Awards $1.5 Million to Multi-University Research Team Led by Dr. Justin North

July 27, 2021

DOE Awards $1.5 Million to Multi-University Research Team Led by Dr. Justin North

Dr. Justin North

The Department of Energy’s Biological and Environmental Research Division recently awarded $45.5 million in funding to support advances in biofuel and bioproduct research. A team of scientists led by Ohio State’s Dr. Justin North was one of the 34 projects selected for funding. Dr. North is a Research Scientist with the Ohio State Department of Microbiology. The team, which also includes Dr. Kelly Wrighton from Colorado State University Soil and Crop Sciences Department, and Dr. Bill Cannon from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Biological Sciences Division, will receive $1.5 million over three years to develop enhanced ethylene synthesis capabilities in photosynthetic and cellulolytic bacteria.

Ethylene gas is the building block for the vast majority plastics produced on the planet. Currently, nearly all ethylene is synthesized from fossil fuels by processes that significantly contribute to the carbon footprint of the plastic industry. Ethylene produced by bacteria from the greenhouse gas CO2, or renewable cellulose plant material has the potential to provide a green alternative for manufacturing everyday plastics like polyethylene, PVC, and Styrofoam. Bacteria and metabolic pathways previously identified by Dr. North and the team that naturally produce ethylene do so at low amounts or are not amenable to industrial scale-up. This project will combine high-throughput gene discovery from environmental bacterial metagenome and virome databases, metabolic engineering, and computational modeling to engineer optimal ethylene synthesis pathways in bacteria suitable for large-scale ethylene production from renewable resources.

With this project, Dr. North is carrying forward research that he began in Dr. Bob Tabita’s lab. Dr. Tabita, who passed away earlier this year, was a renowned plant scientist and microbiologist. Both Tabita and North are long-time members of the Center for Applied Plant Sciences. In 2017, Tabita and North received a CAPS seed grant, with matching funds from the Office of Environment and Energy (now the Sustainability Institute), for research that ultimately led to Dr. Tabita being awarded $1.5 million from the Department of Energy to fully uncover the ethylene synthesis pathway they had discovered. Their research detailing a new enzyme system for the synthesis of ethylene from volatile organic sulfur compounds, was published in Science in 2020 and involved collaborations with Pacific Northwest National Lab, Oakridge National Lab, and Colorado State University, This laid the foundation for the work that North and his collaborators will carry out in this new DOE funded project, titled Metabolic modeling and genetic engineering of enhanced anaerobic microbial ethylene synthesis.