Engineering enzymes for a greener planet

Worldwide, the energy sector is poised for a huge revolution as technologies increasingly drive how we produce, store and consume energy.

Team of young people stand behind iGEM logo
Alex Telfar, far right, and the rest of the VUW team heading to Boston

Currently, New Zealand meets close to 80% of its energy demand through renewable resources. With the country’s energy requirements predicted to double by 2050, there is an urgent need to find ways of reducing dependence on fossil fuels while increasing renewable energy output.

It is in this context that Victoria University of Wellington students developed the Enzymatic Fuel Cell project, to be presented at the upcoming International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration. What began as an independent study course in 2003 became a summer competition with five teams in 2004 and in 2018, the iGEM competition saw participation from 5000 participants across 340 teams from 42 countries.

Victoria University of Wellington’s first team to participate at iGEM, which includes students from the School of Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Biological Sciences, chose a direction that resonated with all of them - to use synthetic biology and construct an enzymatic fuel cell (EFC), a battery-like device, which uses enzymes as catalysts to oxidise fuel.

“There is no simple solution to how we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but biodiesel made from renewable sources can be a viable option. Our project looks at how glycerol, a by-product of biodiesel generation, can help meet electricity demand in an environment-friendly way. How can enzymes be ‘engineered’ to build greener energy systems? How can such bio-batteries potentially substitute traditional metal-based batteries - these were some of the questions we wanted to explore,” says Alex Telfar, a Master of Science student, who is leading the team.

The main by-product in biodiesel production, crude glycerol, is almost worthless due to various global economic factors. The team chose glycerol as the fuel source as this gave them the opportunity to use something that would otherwise go to waste. Inspired by what they read about other EFCs, the team decided to focus on improving an existing glycerol fuel cell.

“I feel like I spent most of my time making mistakes in the lab! But the main theme across most of my mistakes is that biochemistry is a lot more complex than I imagined - chemicals interact when you don't want them to, infections grow where they shouldn’t, genes mutate, and what not,” Alex laughs. “Jokes apart, it’s been a really good learning experience. That genetic engineering is just another type of engineering has been quite an insight for me personally. This project has changed my current research interests and now I’m keen to combine computer science and biochemistry, whether to design drugs more intelligently or build micro machines and computers.”

The 10-member team from Victoria University of Wellington will be presenting their project in Boston on Sunday, November 3.

For more details about the project, log onto https://2019.igem.org/Team:Victoria_Wellington.