Himadri Pakrasi, the ​George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor in biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, leads a team awarded $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation to streamline the genome of a cyanobacterium with the goal of developing a green cellular factory for sustainable production of food, feed and fuels.

Himadri Pakrasi

“In this project, we are aiming to redesign the genome of a photosynthetic organism without sacrificing its production capacity. This is a tall task, never attempted before,” Pakrasi said.

Researchers will use a genome reduction strategy to develop a photosynthetic production platform out of a fast-growing cyanobacterium, Synechococcus 2973, that can efficiently convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into products of interest. This strain has the fastest doubling time of any known species of cyanobacteria and the highest rate of biomass production observed in cyanobacteria, making it a prime target for bioproduction.

Pakrasi and members of his research group, including postdoctoral research associate Anindita Banerjee and research scientist Deng Liu in biology in Arts & Sciences, have worked with Synechococcus 2973 before, including on projects that required expertise in cyanobacterial physiology, systems and synthetic biology.

Their collaboration includes pioneering geneticist George Church of Harvard Medical School and MIT and computational scientist Costas Maranas at Penn State. The Pakrasi and Maranas research groups have worked together for nearly a decade.

The new project involves state-of-the-art genome editing technology, guided by metabolic modeling and experimental analysis. The project will also train a number of undergraduate students, teaching the design and implementation of molecular tools and cyanobacterial physiology.

“Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and can thrive with sunlight and consume carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas,” Pakrasi said. “Bioproduction using such microbial cell factories is expected to be environmentally sustainable, as compared to the current heterotrophic production hosts.”

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