Energy is something that biology has been doing very successfully for many billions of years. In fact, it underpins the whole notion of an effective biological system on the planet.
It is difficult to define the destination before the science and technology can be developed.
What I cannot create, I do not understand
Is it possible that an ancient microbe, in existence for millions of years, could hold the key to making low-cost and efficient devices for future supplies of clean water? Are there patterns in protein structure that provide clues for creating artificial photosynthetic systems that are more robust and efficient than those found in nature? Can sulfur-loving bacteria living in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean provide new ways to capture and utilize methane (i.e., low-energy oxidation of methane to methanol)? As current energy sources are dwindling and the demand for energy is expected to more than double by 2050 (U.S. Department of Energy, 2005), the development of alternative sources and approaches to energy is needed. Over billions of years, biological organisms have evolved and optimized methods to create and harness energy through photosynthesis, chemosynthesis, and basic cellular processes. The underlying mechanisms by which organisms produce energy have provided researchers with a template from which they try to mimic the processes, or to inspire new techniques for producing alternative energy technologies to address society’s long-term energy needs.
Building upon a 2007 workshop (National Research Council, 2007), the National Academies Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology
convened the Committee on Research Frontiers in Bioinspired Energy to organize a second workshop in 2011 which, according to the statement of task, would explore the molecular-level frontiers of energy processes in nature through an interactive, multidisciplinary, and public format.1 Specifically, the committee was charged to feature invited presentations and include discussion of key biological energy capture, storage, and transformation processes; gaps in knowledge and barriers to transitioning the current state of knowledge into applications; and underdeveloped research opportunities that might exist beyond disciplinary boundaries. This report is an account of what occurred at the workshop, and does not attempt to present any consensus findings or recommendations of the workshop participants. It summarizes the views expressed by workshop participants, and while the committee is responsible for the overall quality and accuracy of the report as a record of what transpired at the workshop, the views contained in the report are not necessarily those of the committee.
Opening remarks were made by workshop organizing committee member Douglas Ray, from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, followed by an opening plenary talk presented by Leslie Dutton of the University of Pennsylvania. Dutton’s work has revealed common machinery in enzymes driven by electron transfer, which he has used to construct synthetic enzymes and hopes can be applied to helping to meet needs in energy and medicine. The subsequent technical sessions of the workshop focused on energy transformations, energy capture, and bioinspired energy systems, and are briefly described below. Greater details about each speaker’s presentation can be found in Chapter 2. A summary of breakout session discussions is given in Chapter 3.
This session began with Penelope Boston, from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, speaking about her work in extreme environments of the subsurface of Earth. Boston described microbes from these environments that carry out chemical processes in unique and novel ways with relevance to energy applications. Next, Steven Benner, from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, spoke about his research in the synthetic biology field. One of the goals of his work is to develop a
1 See Appendixes A–D for the committee’s statement of task, the workshop agenda, organizer and speaker biographies, and participant list, respectively.
system that is self-sustaining and capable of evolving. Following the first session, workshop attendees participated in the first breakout session.
In this session, Janos Lanyi, of the University of California, Irvine, presented his research on bacteriorhodopsin (BR)—the light-driven electrogenic ion pump in the cytoplasmic membrane of Halobacterium salinarum. He highlighted the key principles he has learned from BR that are needed to construct useful energy systems, especially those involving hydrogen transport. Rudolf Thauer, from Max Planck Institute, then presented data on anaerobic oxidation of methane with sulfate as an electron acceptor in microorganisms. Thauer discussed how the mechanism used by those microorganisms could inspire chemists to build catalysts that might be used to oxidize methane to methanol. Following the energy capture session, participants were asked to attend the second breakout session.
Evening Plenary Session
The evening plenary talk was given by Marian Plotkin from the University of Singapore. Plotkin described his research on Oriental hornets and solar energy–correlated digging activity. He discussed in detail how the pigments and molecular structure of the hornet cuticle exhibit useful antireflection and light-trapping properties.
Bioinspired Energy Systems
On the second day of the workshop, Kenneth Nealson, from the University of California and the J. Craig Venter Institute, opened the session on bioinspired energy systems. Nealson discussed his research on the microorganism Shewanella, which has unique redox properties. He highlighted some promising results of using the microbe for fuel cells and water purification. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, National Aeronautics and Space Administration astrobiology fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, spoke next. She highlighted her research on exploring photosynthesis in cyanobacteria that do not make oxygen and about research she published on a microbe that can sustain its growth in normally biologically toxic levels of arsenic. Both Nealson’s and Wolfe-Simon’s projects highlighted the inherent flexibility of biology. After the session, participants were asked to join the third, and final, breakout session for discussion.
The final speaker at the workshop was Nadrian Seeman from New York University. Seeman described how DNA’s chemical information can be used for bottom-up nanoscale control and to create nanoscale mechanical devices. The workshop concluded with remarks by organizing committee member James C. Liao from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Workshop participants met in three different breakout discussion groups during the course of the workshop. Each topical session included a breakout discussion and report-back time. The breakout sessions allowed for more in-depth and interactive discussion between participants during the workshop. The composition of the discussion groups was multidisciplinary and provided feedback to the larger group on
- Key issues raised or important information provided by the guest speakers,
- Research opportunities, especially for interdisciplinary collaborations, and
- Resource and educational needs to support long-term advances.
There were five groups for each breakout session (14–16 participants per group). The composition of each group changed each session to ensure maximum mixing of workshop participants. Each discussion group was run by an assigned discussion leader and a committee member. The discussion leaders were as follows (biographies in Appendix C):
- Judy Wall, University of Missouri, Columbia
- Tom Moore, Arizona State University
- Janet Westpheling, University of Georgia
- R. David Britt, University of California, Davis
- Robert Kelly, North Carolina State University
Discussion leaders were responsible for posing questions and facilitating discussion. Committee members were responsible for ensuring that the discussion stayed on task and within scope of the workshop objectives, and for capturing key ideas from the discussion (summarized in Chapter 3). Each breakout session began by considering the following set of questions:
- What were the key issues raised or important information provided by the guest speakers in the plenary session?
- Were there any new insights about the ways life forms capture, transform, and store energy at the molecular level?
- How might new and existing information be applied in new ways—to create new energy systems?
- What are the unique perspectives that each discipline brings to studying these processes and systems?
- What are the research opportunities to advance the science, especially for interdisciplinary collaborations?
- What are resource and educational needs for supporting long-term advances in bioinspired energy?
Some of the key issues discussed by breakout group participants during the workshop included defining the term “bioinspired”; exploring microbial diversity and setting priorities; developing and supporting research and collaborative models; supporting current and creating new opportunities for interdisciplinary education, training, and outreach; understanding microbial nanowires and fuel cells; understanding and applying synthetic biology to energy applications; and keeping the big picture in mind.
In trying to make the workshop material readily available to the public, the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology developed a hub for information relating to the Research Frontiers in Bioinspired Energy: Molecular-Level Learning from Natural Systems workshop. At the time of this publication, additional material relating to the workshop could be found at http://dels.nas.edu/global/bcst/bioinspired-energy. It includes speaker presentations, post-workshop interviews of speakers, and YouTube videos from speakers. Post-workshop interviews asked participants to briefly summarize the research they presented at the workshop and one key issue they believe was raised during the workshop. The YouTube videos showed workshop participants addressing the following questions:
- Why are biological systems useful models for developing new sources of energy?
- What can we learn about energy from biological systems?
- What is one example of an energy device or technology that was inspired by a biological system?
U.S. Department of Energy. 2005. Basic Research Needs for Solar Energy Utilization [online]. Available: http://authors.library.caltech.edu/8599/1/SEU_rpt05.pdf [accessed Sept. 21, 2011].
National Research Council. 2007. Bioinspired Chemistry for Energy. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.