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Collaborative Research: Synthetic Lichen Co-Cultures for Sustainable Generation of Biotechnology Products


Many drugs are produced by microbes and used to treat diseases in humans and animals. The cost of manufacturing is a serious issue for many of these drugs. One major cost is for the nutrients required by these microbes to grow and produce the drug. The goal of this project is to lower nutrient costs and overall production costs by growing two microbes together. One microbe is photosynthetic. It will utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to generate nutrients that are then consumed by the other microbe. This removes the need to purchase expensive nutrients, decreasing the cost of drug manufacture. In this project, the target product will be endolysin, a novel treatment against chicken infections that can potentially avoid the widespread use of antibiotics in the poultry industry. The project will also educate students from the high school to the graduate level about co-cultures, preparing them for employment in the growing biomanufacturing industry.<br/><br/>Commercially, filamentous fungi like Aspergillus produce enzymes, antibiotics, and metabolites. Economic analysis reveals that the cost of organic carbon feedstocks is a major cost for these processes. In nature, filamentous fungi are found as part of lichens, which are a symbiosis between a photosynthetic autotroph (photobiont) and its partner, typically a fungus similar to Aspergillus. The photobiont provides organic carbon, generated using carbon dioxide and sunlight, to partner fungal species. The fungi generate useful biochemicals. The goal of this project is to implement synthetic lichen co-cultures as a transformative biomanufacturing platform for the production of a novel antimicrobial peptide. Cultivation conditions that allow Aspergillus and cyanobacteria to grow successfully together will be identified. Interactions between the two partners will be characterized using genome scale co-culture models that incorporate transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolic data. This model will be used to determine the media composition and cultivation regime that optimizes the growth and production capabilities of our synthetic lichen. The synthetic lichen will then generate a novel anti-microbial peptide, endolysin, which could replace antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections in chickens. Overall, the project will develop a low-cost platform for the production of a wide variety of therapeutic molecules and proteins.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Michael Betenbaugh
Johns Hopkins University
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