New Membranes Milk Molecules from Microbes

A team of KAUST scientists have devised a method to extract useful chemicals from microalgae. The system is based on a series of membranes, one of which is built from hollow microfibers, that separate the microalgae-containing fluid from the desired product. Credit: Reproduced from Overmans et al (2022) with permission from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Original artwork by Ana Bigio

by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and

A sustainable chemical separation method that uses membranes, microalgae and artificial intelligence has been developed by a research team from different departments at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

According to the group, whose members have diverse specialties in bioengineering, membranes, water reuse, and recycling, such membrane-based continuous separation and concentration processes will help realize the full potential of microbial chemical production for use in medicine and industry.

“The advantage of our method is that products can be continuously extracted from liquid microbial cultures, such as microalgae, in a ‘milking’ process, rather than being extracted laboriously from the biomass at the end of a batch culture,” said postdoc and first author Sebastian Overmans.

Microalgae are microbes that naturally produce many useful chemicals and can also be genetically engineered to excrete other specialty molecules. This project demonstrated a low-energy and efficient way to harvest and concentrate these products. Additionally, the microbes can be grown on waste materials, and the molecular concentration process does not produce waste.

Membranes milking illustration

Illustration of the hollow-fiber setup used for the extraction of the desired molecules (patchoulol) from the microalgae culture. Patchoulol is a valuable compound widely used in the perfume industry. Credit: Reproduced from Overmans et al (2022) with permission from the Royal Society of Chemistry (CC BY 3.0)

The system is based on a membrane built from hollow microfibers that separates the culture fluid that contains microalgae from a solvent where the desired product accumulates. The product is then further separated and concentrated using other specialized membranes selected and designed by artificial intelligence that allow recycling of the solvent without loss to the system.

The team demonstrated the potential of their technique by continuously extracting patchoulol, a compound widely used in perfumery. These membrane combinations could also be applied to many other specialty chemicals. “This is exciting,” said biotechnologist Kyle J. Lauersen, “because it could be implemented in large scale bio-factories using a variety of microbes, not only algae, to convert waste into valuable products.”

The next step is to demonstrate scaling up to industrial levels. The team also plans to develop membranes with larger surface areas and to explore the use of different algal strains to produce many more compounds of interest.

The research was published in Green Chemistry.

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