Press release

Genetically engineered bacteria boost lignin utilisation – a new study receives €1.3 million

Suvi Santala tutkii ligniinin hyödyntämistä. Kuva: Ville Santala
University Lecturer Suvi Santala’s research combines synthetic biology and accelerated evolution to ensure that lignin, which has many potential uses, no longer ends up as waste. Photo: Ville Santala
Tampere University’s researcher Suvi Santala received significant funding from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to study the utilisation of lignin. In a five-year biotechnology research project, Santala and her group will develop breakthrough technologies to recycle lignin from plant biomass that currently ends up as waste.

Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are challenging the entire global community to develop environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil raw materials. Santala is working as a university lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences. Her project combines global relevance, new ecological production methods, and resource efficiency. The study will develop new molecular and cellular tools and produce important information on the potential of utilising lignin biologically.

Upcycling lignin represents the circular economy at its best because it turns one person’s waste into a useful raw material or even a valuable product for another. The Novo Nordisk Foundation is funding this promising new approach with €1.3 million.

High-quality lubricants from lignin by using synthetic biology

Up to a third of all plant biomass (lignocellulose) is lignin. Currently, lignin is a waste product from, for example, pulp processing and it is hardly recovered except by burning. In the United States, for example, the ethanol industry currently uses only the sugars from plant biomass, and up to 60 million tonnes of lignin end up as waste annually.

Santala’s study is also exceptionally significant because lignin valorisation is not very straightforward. The goal of using the new method to recover most of the lignin is ambitious.

“We are developing technologies that will allow us to create features that are not yet found in nature but that work in biological cells. They will allow lignin to be converted into valuable products by using genetically engineered bacteria,” Santala says.

To programme the bacteria to use lignin efficiently, the project will apply the latest techniques in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering. 

“By combining these approaches, we are testing the limits of biology, for example, by accelerating evolution and by guiding and providing new material for evolution through synthetic biology,” Santala explains.

In the future, lignin waste could be used, for example, to produce high-quality lubricants to replace non-renewable crude oil.

Sustainable solutions by international collaboration

Santala’s research project Improving metabolic diversity and efficiency of bacteria for lignin valorization spans from 2021 to 2026. The project will employ 3–4 promising researchers. It collaborates, for example, with the University of Georgia and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, which are both in the US. 

The Novo Nordisk Foundation funds projects that have a significant impact on the sustainability of societies and the environment. Its Emerging Investigator funding supports promising researchers in industrial biotechnology and environmental biotechnology in the Nordic countries. The funding enables setting up a research group. Funding is granted for research that offers widely exploitable solutions and applications, and the potential for new breakthroughs.

Read more about Novo Nordisk’s Research Leader programme.

Enquiries:

Suvi Santala
tel. +358 40 198 1158
suvi.santala [at] tuni.fi

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