His blue-green bacteria could produce biofuel in the future
22 April 2021
While Peter Lindblad has served in many academic roles over the years, it is to research that he always returns. At the Ångström Laboratory, his research group is developing fuels that could contribute to future energy solutions. “If you want to generate a lot of biomass, you should use a cyanobacteria culture,” says Peter Lindblad, professor of microbial chemistry.
In the lab at Microbial Chemistry stand rows of receptacles containing blue-green cyanobacteria, rocking in unison. The idea is that the rocking of the undercarriages is similar to the wind and waves in lakes and oceans. It is clearly a winning concept. Cyanobacteria have been cultured here for fifteen years in nearly 200 projects, resulting in countless research articles. The secret lies mainly in the step before the bottle stage. Peter Lindblad holds up a petri dish filled with tiny dots or rather, genetically modified cells.
“We are very good at designing and engineering these organisms. By combining advanced genetic engineering and synthetic biology, we can design microbial cells that are capable of performing entirely new functions.”
These revolutionary functions include the manufacture of products such as butanol and ethanol. Every single tiny cell is a tiny micro-factory, and they can also be made to grow more quickly. The basis is photosynthesis, the chemical reaction that takes place when bacteria capture the energy of the Sun and carbon dioxide from the air around them. By using genetic engineering, the organisms’ production of chemicals can be scaled up to become biofuel, plastic and rubber for example.
“My team in Microbial Chemistry comprising Pia Lindberg and Karin Stensjö, as well organic chemist Henrik Ottosson, is now trying to demonstrate how you can take modified cyanobacteria that produce the small gas molecule isoprene and, by using solar energy and photochemistry, get aviation fuel directly! That means there is no need for us to grow plants or source biofuel from our forests.”
Peter Lindblad’s enthusiasm is palpable. He hopes to be able to share this with social actors in the energy sector. The transition to a sustainable production of alternative fuels for the transport and industry sectors is urgent. But how quickly can levels of production for a fuel such as butanol be scaled up? The answer to that is a catch 22. Investments that might have provided an answer to this to date have been non-existent due to a lack of guaranteed returns. However, Peter Lindblad still has many promising projects on the boil.
“We are talking to a number of stakeholders about setting up cyanobacteria farms in ponds close to industrial sites with high carbon emissions. If we provide the bacteria with a higher concentration of carbon dioxide, this will speed up the manufacturing process. But we also don’t want to make use of agricultural areas or other land. Culturing cyanobacteria is also more efficient than planting lots of trees and plants. This is partly because they grow so quickly, and partly because you get a lot of biomass for the surface area you use.”
Standing in the window of Peter Lindblad’s office is a cycad, a fitting element given that its roots are home to cyanobacteria. There, they provide the cycad with nitrogen from the air in exchange for energy and a habitat. This is a true symbiosis that has fascinated him ever since his years as a doctoral student in Uppsala, which were followed by a post-doc fellowship in Australia. Every morning, he would pick cycads outside his lab at the University of Western Australia in the outskirts of Perth. These samples were analysed using advanced biochemistry and physiology. After eighteen months, he moved on to work alongside a molecular biologist in Troy, USA, in order to continue his studies of cyanobacteria in the roots of cycads using the latest DNA technology.
Back in Uppsala in 1990, where he had defended his doctoral thesis in physiological botany, he secured a research appointment at the Department of Physiological Botany. At the same time, he also used funding from the Swedish Research Council to establish his own lab. Over the years that followed, he was employed as a senior lecturer, which he combined with a role coordinating international research at the IEA, an OECD body in Paris, as well as a job at the Swedish Energy Agency. When the Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis was established at Uppsala University in 2006, Peter Lindblad was one of the main driving forces behind the initiative. Around a decade later, he was appointed Dean for External Collaboration at the Faculty of Science and Technology. Other roles on his CV include Uppsala University’s academic coordinator for the Swedish-Japanese Mirai research partnership, as well as project manager for the Testa Center, a test bed for modern bioprocess technology in Uppsala.
“Having other roles alongside my research is something that I have done for a very long time. I love working in an interdisciplinary context, and I’ve been told that I’m good at getting the ball rolling and enthusing other people. In terms of research, I’ve also participated in a number of major projects, many of them at the EU level. But there has to be something unique that we can offer in Uppsala – that’s what makes it work for me.”
Peter Lindblad made the leap from biology to chemistry in 2008 when he was involved in the founding of the new Department of Photochemistry and Molecular Science based at the Ångström Laboratory. In Microbial Chemistry, he formed a new research group that currently has around fifteen members. He gets inspired by working with young, creative people with real drive.
“In my latest project, I have a super-engaged student who has suggested that we look at enzymes that can degrade PET plastic floating in the oceans. There were some Japanese researchers who discovered a bacteria in 2016 that can break down and sustain itself on plastic. But no one had thought to add that capability to a cyanobacterium,” says Peter Lindblad.
These plastic-eating enzymes are now being developed in Uppsala and will later be transferred to the Ar Research Station on Gotland. Once there, they will be cultured in sealed cyanobacteria systems in the waters of the Baltic to demonstrate that the method works. The next step will be to genetically modify organisms taken from the Baltic.
“This genetic capability can then be transferred into the local cyanobacteria in the sea. They would be nourished by plastic, as well as being modified to produce one of the products that we need. Although we are in the basic research stage, the system clearly has long-term potential.”
FACTS ABOUT PETER LINDBLAD
Education: Subject teacher degree in biology, chemistry and geosciences, including teacher training college, at Linköping University (+ extra studies in botany in Uppsala) 1978-83. Doctoral student in Physiological Botany Uppsala 1983-87, PhD 1987. Postdoc Australia, University of Western Australia (UWA), Perth 1987-88, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, New York, USA 1988-89.
Lives: In a big, charming 1930s house in Fålhagen, Uppsala.
Family: Two children of his own, three bonus kids and partner.
In my spare time: I like swimming and being out at sea, picking mushrooms and cross-country skiing.
Reads: I love crime fiction, especially Tom Clancy spy thrillers.
Listens to: When I was younger, I was very attracted to Swedish protest music like the Hoola Bandoola Band. Another band, Risken Finns, was not permitted on the radio as their lyrics were not considered not really socially acceptable. I still listen to them sometimes – maybe it helps to keep me young...!
Fun fact: Peter Lindblad is a Knight in the Icelandic Order of the Falcon: “I received the honour from the President of Iceland when he was visiting Uppsala some years ago. No motivation was offered, but I suspect it was a combination of the fact that I had previously worked at the University of Akureyri, and that I was responsible for his visit to the Ångström Laboratory.”
If I could travel: I would love to visit the Caribbean. I would go cruising on a catamaran and do some diving. Another of my dreams is to visit Easter Island. Otherwise, I love going to Lake Balaton in Hungary, where I have a summer house.