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‘Smart’ Otago science supported in national research investment
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Thursday, 29 August 2013 3:53pm

Two innovative University of Otago research projects focused on enabling bio-manufacturing of key industrial chemicals and developing new bee-friendly insecticides have been funded in the government’s latest science investment round.

Department of Biochemistry researchers Dr Monica Gerth and Dr Wayne Patrick gain $1M for a High Value Manufacturing and Services Research Fund project titled “Manufacturing molecules through enzyme engineering”, while Associate Professor Peter Dearden receives $920,000 to pursue a project titled “Selective insecticides” under the Biological Industries Fund.

Both are funded under the “Smart Ideas” category, which supports research into novel, promising ideas that can create benefit for New Zealand.

University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie warmly congratulated the researchers on their success in the science investment round.

“It is exciting to see this significant support for innovative Otago research proposals that have great potential to benefit both our economy and environment,” Professor Blaikie says.

Project descriptions:

Selective insecticides

$920,000 over two years
Associate Professor Peter Dearden (Department of Biochemistry)

There is conflict between the use of insecticides to protect our crops and the damage these insecticides cause to beneficial insects such as bees. One way to solve this problem is the development of insect-killing genetically modified plants, but here in New Zealand there is public disquiet over such an approach.

Here we propose to begin the process of developing the next generation of insecticides, ones that are effective against pests, but have no effect on bees. Our previous research has identified a novel target in the genomes of pest insects that is missing from bees. Finding this target gives us hope that developing chemicals that interfere with these novel targets will produce an effective insecticide against pests, which has no impact on bees. In this project we will develop the tools and infrastructure to allow us to develop these effective, yet bee friendly, insecticides.

Manufacturing molecules through enzyme engineering

Dr Monica Gerth and Dr Wayne Patrick (Department of Biochemistry)
$1 million over two years

This proposal seeks to develop new bio-manufacturing processes for two chemicals (butanone and 2-butanol) that are currently produced from petroleum. Butanone is a key ingredient in paints, varnishes and adhesives, while 2-butanol is converted into synthetic rubbers (particularly car tyres). The worldwide market for these chemicals is in the millions of tonnes, and billions of dollars, per year. However the global chemical industry is seeking new ways to manufacture them, which are not reliant on the fickle (and unsustainable) petroleum market.

A successful New Zealand biotechnology business, LanzaTech NZ Ltd, has a gas-eating microbe that is naturally occurring and categorised as a World Health Organization Risk Group 1 organism (the same as baker’s yeast). This microbe efficiently converts waste gases (carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide) into bioethanol. The microbe also produces a chemical building block, 2,3-butanediol.

In this proposal, we will engineer new enzymes that convert 2,3-butanediol into butanone and 2-butanol. The required functions will be engineered by taking existing enzymes with related activities, and accelerating the evolution of these single molecules. The engineered enzymes will be tested in a laboratory microbe. If successful, the next phase of the research will be to incorporate the enzymes into the LanzaTech microbe and to optimise the new strains for commercial butanone and 2-production.

Our enzyme engineering technologies will also be of considerable interest to end users in the forestry and dairy sectors. These sectors offer alternative feedstocks for fermentation processes, such as woody biomass and dairy whey. This research has the potential to establish NZ as a centre of the global green chemical market, which is projected to grow from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion in 2020.

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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