Harnessing and Understanding the Power of Microbial Consortia: Synthetic and Systems Biology Approaches
Microbes are everywhere in nature and they live in diverse communities that show remarkable metabolic capabilities and robustness. Inspired by these synergistic ecosystems, my lab has been developing a new approach for microbial engineering and biochemical production - design and construction of synthetic microbial consortia consisting of different specialists to accomplish a complicated task. One application focus has been synthesis of fuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass. Our designed consortium includes a cellulolytic member responsible for hydrolyzing hemicellulose and cellulose (main components of lignocellulosic biomass) into mono and oligosaccharides and a fermenting member for converting mono and oligosaccharides into desired molecules such as isobutanol, an advanced biofuel. Such a synthetic microbial consortium integrating saccharification and fermentation capabilities will enable one-step “consolidated” bioprocessing (CBP), a potential breakthrough technology that can lead to cost-effective production of lignocellulosic biochemicals. The general framework of engineering defined co-cultures of coordinated specialists could offer exciting new opportunities for the efficient and flexible production of many valuable chemicals from other non-conventional bio-feedstocks. A second distinct yet complementary research thrust in my lab is to employ engineering related tools to study naturally occurring microbial consortia in order to discover the design principles underlying these complex systems. In particular, we have been developing a technological pipeline, based on nanoliter-scale microfluidic droplets, to co-cultivate sub-communities and characterize member interactions that shape the structure and function of the microbial consortia. Several technological modules have been created and the pipeline is being applied to the investigation of a range of health or environment related microbiomes.