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Interview with Klaas Hellingwerf, professor of General Microbiology

Prof Klaas Hellingwerf
Photo: Jan Willen Steenmeijer

Despite occasional accusations of it being a left-wing plot and the unfounded ramblings of soft-brained scientists, few today would deny that global warming and resource depletion are serious challenges facing our planet. Built on two centuries of cheaply available fossil fuels, the global industrial economy runs the risk of falling victim to its own success as it seeks to wean itself of its dependency on carbon-emitting fuels while at the same time relentlessly pursuing economic growth. As of late, alarmingly high levels of atmospheric carbon coupled with the impending effects of ‘peak oil’ have necessitated the search for clean, renewable energy in the form of biofuels and solar power. Initially hailed as viable alternatives, these energy sources have, however, proven to be less effective in terms of cost and efficiency than was hoped. Illustrating the law of unintended consequences, a number of biofuels have actually caused a spike in food prices, as agricultural land and crops are increasingly diverted for use in the biofuels industry. A truly clean and abundant energy source, it would seem, continues to elude us.

Or does it?

According to two of the UvA’s brightest minds, a simple prokaryotic microorganism might be the answer to one of the world’s most complex issues. Known as cyanobacteria, these primordial microorganisms have the same photosynthetic abilities as plants and can be found in almost every terrestrial and aquatic environment on earth. Indeed, so convinced are UvA researchers Klaas Hellingwerf and Joost Teixeira de Mattos of cyanobacteria’s prospects as a source of clean energy, that – together with the University of Amsterdam – they have formed their own start-up company to develop and market this simple, yet effective type of algae.

In this month’s 'UvA in the Spotlight', we speak to Klaas Hellingwerf, professor of General Microbiology at the Faculty of Science about bacteria, climate change and the possibility of clean energy.  

Cyanobacteria can be found in most aquatic environments. (Photo: Flickr-CreativeCommons)

Could you tell us more about the Photanol concept?

Photanol offers a viable, clean and efficient alternative to current fossil fuels and biofuels by harnessing the photosynthetic power of cyanobacteria. Since the industrial revolution, the world has become dependent on a finite amount of fossils fuels, such as oil and coal, for use in transport and production of bulk chemicals in industry. Over the last two centuries, these fossil fuels have, however, managed to disturb the earth’s carbon cycle, leading to an increase in atmospheric CO2, with global warming and climate change as a direct result. Although recent times have seen the emergence of cleaner fossil alternatives, these sources of energy are not only complex to produce, but also wasteful and inefficient. 

At Photanol, a start-up created by my colleague and me in 2008/9, we’ve taken a more biological approach by using the natural photosynthetic properties of cyanobacteria to capture sunlight and directly convert CO2 into valuable compounds, such as ethanol, butanol and propanediol. We do this by genetically altering the metabolism of cyanobacteria, thus allowing us to circumvent the traditional photosynthetic route in which sunlight is used to convert CO2 into biomass. By introducing properties of fermentative bacteria, we create a shortcut in which cyanobacteria use solar power to immediately convert CO2 into biofuels. The only by-product of this whole process is oxygen.    

Are you the first to do so?

Strictly speaking, no. The first to suggest the possibility of using cyanobacteria as a source for producing alcohol were two Canadian researchers, who published their idea in the 1990s. Despite the initial excitement following their article, nothing more was heard for several years. In 2008, we took a closer look at the idea and realised that instead of alcohol we could also genetically modify cyanobacteria to produce other energy carriers, including butanol, lactic acid and acetone. We then immediately set about patenting our idea, which enabled us to create a commercial spin-off. Since then, this spin-off has been the catalyst for further research and development.  

When do you hope to bring your product to the market?

After forming Photanol and safeguarding our intellectual ownership over a number of products, we immediately went about proving that these products could indeed be manufactured within a laboratory setting. Once our hypothesis had been successfully confirmed, we were awarded a grant in 2010 to build a pilot plant at the Faculty of Science (Science Park 904 – ed.), which was recently completed. Now that this infrastructure is operational, our next step will be to increase the scale and efficiency of the production process to such an extent that our product becomes commercially viable. To do so, we’ll need to expand our floor area from its current 60 square metres to about a hectare. Despite a number of growing pains, we’re confident that we’ll manage to do so in the near future.              

Aside from biofuels, are there any other products you might be able to produce using cyanobacteria?

When we received our grant in 2010, the world was experiencing an unprecedented surge in the price of oil and natural gas. Faced with the prospect of depleting oil resources and increasing energy consumption, the government encouraged investment in the biofuels industry, which was an incentive to us at the time to continue focusing on cyanobacteria-based energy carriers. Since then, the global energy landscape has shifted once again. Recent events such as the drop in oil price and the surge in fracking activities in the US have forced us to also think of other alternative products that could be synthesised using cyanobacteria. Within the field of biotechnology, E. coli and Saccharomyces, a yeast, are some of the most widely used organisms used in the manufacture of pharmaceutical and industrial products, such as washing powder enzymes and bulk plastics. The enzymes and biomolecules made by these organisms can, however, also be produced by cyanobacteria. Better still, cyanobacteria use only sunlight and CO2 to produce the same products as E. coli and Saccharomyces, which need sugars. When one considers the abundance of CO2 and decreasing amount of agricultural space to grow plants that will provide these sugars, cyanobacteria are a very clean and cost-efficient alternative. 

You’ve mentioned the increase in fracking activities in the US. Do you think that shale gas might be an answer to the world’s energy needs?

Quite the opposite. Shale gas, in my opinion, is an absolute disaster in the fight against climate change. If you closely examine shale gas fracking in its current form, you’ll see that the cons far outweigh the pros. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is dependent on large amounts of water, an increasingly scarce commodity, especially in agriculture. If more water is needed for fracking, a conflict of interests will arise between energy and agriculture. Moreover, fracking has been known to contaminate water supplies, on which all living matter depends.

Also alarming is the appalling wastefulness of the fracking process. During fracking, only about 50 per cent of the gas that gets mined is actually captured, while the rest ends up in the atmosphere. Gas of course, consists of methane, which is a 20-fold more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. If atmospheric methane concentrations continue to increase as a result of fracking, the outcome might turn out to be quite unpleasant.

Are you hopeful society will become cognisant of the need to fully embrace cleaner energy sources like cyanobacteria, instead of thinking in terms of short-term economic gain? 

Everything's possible. However, one usually only sees a change in mindset after something extreme happens, like the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. As terrible as they are, recent natural disasters might make people understand that man-made global warming is a threat that requires a global response. Even if we reduce or totally stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it will still take years for atmospheric carbon levels to stabilise, which is why alternatives like cyanobacteria are so sorely needed. I’m hopeful, however, that current attitudes will change and that society will cross over to a more sustainable mode of energy consumption.  


Klaas Hellingwerf