UK fungus research to optimize biobased chemical production

By Luke Geiver | July 09, 2012

A European research team is working to integrate chemical engineering with genetic mapping techniques to improve the biobased chemical production process. Working at the Biorenewables Development Centre in York, England, the team will study the fungus strain Aspergillus niger, a micro-organism used with industrial fermentation processes that produce citric acid from sugars. The team at BDC and the University of York will partner with Citration Technology Ltd., a company that specializes in using A. niger in citric acid production.

According to Margaret Smallwood from the BDC, the aim of the research is to identify the most promising routes for chemical production, and, to patent any production methods discovered during the research. “Rather than using genetic modification,” she said of the research, “we plan to use modern molecular genetic techniques to study the strain in depth and identify suitably improved variants.” In general, she added, the research effort might include chemically treating the fungus, selective growth on specific growth media or, analysis of the gene expression changes following any treatments. “Combined with analysis of the various compounds produced by the variety before and after treatment, this should allow us to select new variants with improved properties,” she said.

Smallwood also said that although the fungus strain A. niger has already been proven to produce citric acid from waste streams, the team hopes to identify other compounds might be produced from an optimized version of the strain.

The research project will last roughly one year. The BDC and Citration Technology will fund half of the research with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Center (BBRSC) funding the other half of the roughly $150,000 effort.

The team will include five main research leaders. Alexander McAvoy from Citration Technology will provide know-how on feedstocks and the potential industrial applications of the organism. Josh Hamilton, also with Citration Technology, will work on the project’s steering group. Deborah Rathbone, feedstock development manager at the BDC, will work on the genetic analysis of the varieties tested while also assessing the changes in gene expressions between the wild types and the improved types. Simon McQueen, chair of materials biology at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, will work on the research reporting. And, Jamie Wood, a professor of math and biology at the University of York, will apply whole organism metabolic models to understand how the strains function in a systems biology setting.