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The Washington Research Foundation Fellowship

David Ojala, Chemical Engineering, 2010-11 WRFF/Space Grant

David Ojala photoMy research experience began two years ago in Dr. Mary Lidstrom’s lab under the supervision of Dr. Marina Kalyuzhnaya. As an undergraduate in chemical engineering, I noticed a need for engineers working at the border between engineering and biology. The Lidstrom lab does just that, applying engineering ideas to biological issues. I became particularly interested in studying methanotrophs, microbes that grow on methane. Methanotrophs have great potential for use in biotechnological applications such as bioremediation and biocatalysis. The application my project focuses on is enhancing microbial oxidation of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to methanol. Methanol is used as both a chemical feedstock and a fuel. Metabolic engineering of methanotrophic bacteria is an effective way to convert methane emissions from waste resources to a value-added commodity.

Researching as an undergraduate has been a transformative educational experience for me. I’ve been able to recognize how concepts from my coursework can be applied to the biological systems I research. That’s a powerful way to learn. After graduating with my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, I will pursue a Ph.D. focusing on metabolic engineering of microorganisms. In particular, I am interested in the scale-up of biotechnological processes from bench-top to industrial implementation. I am grateful for the Washington Research Foundation/Space Grant support of both my research and long-term goals.

Mentor: Marina Kalyuzhnaya, Microbiology

Project Title: Microbial Catalysts of Methane to Methanol Processes

Abstract: Methanotrophs are microbes that oxidize methane to methanol with high efficiency. Oxidation of methane to methanol is an attractive solution for reducing methane emissions because methanol is a value-added commodity utilized as both a fuel and chemical feedstock. The major goal of my research project is to develop microbial processes to convert methane to methanol on an industrial scale.Effective microbial oxidation of methane to methanol is currently limited by the lack of robust methanotrophic strains that can tolerate the extreme conditions found in industrial processes while producing a high yield of methanol. A screening of potential candidates for industrial use revealed Methylomicrobium sp. 20Z, a methanotrophic bacteria isolated from soda lakes. Methylomicrobium sp. 20Z tolerates a wide range of pH and salinity while exhibiting relatively high rates of methanol production. I will be optimizing 20Z to increase methanol yield. Mutagenesis of 20Z will focus on key facets of methanotroph metabolism. Single amino acid mutations of pMMO, the enzyme which catalyzes methane oxidation, will be characterized to elucidate the mechanisms for methane oxidation in 20Z. Much of the methanol produced by methanotrophs is further oxidized to formaldehyde by methanol dehydrogenase. Replacing the high efficiency methanol dehydrogenase found in 20Z with a lower efficiency enzyme from another organism could improve accumulation of methanol. Alternative or duplicate pmoCAB copies that encode pMMOwill be inserted to overexpress the methane oxidation system in 20Z. Ultimately, genetically engineered strains could be used in industrial bioreactors to convert methane emitted from waste resources to methanol.