How can microbes help us diminish the oil-based production of chemicals?

Some challenges are too big for just one discipline, says professor of synthetic chemistry Jan Deska, who works in an interdisciplinary team.

What are your research topics?

I am a chemist who is trying to find new solutions for how to utilize natural systems to produce chemicals. All organisms – you, me, or the bacteria and fungi in my lab – are constantly performing countless chemical transformations in our cells. However, those transformations are not really leading to the chemicals that we would industrially require in our value chains, for example to manufacture medicines or plastics.

We are therefore developing methods to manipulate microbes so that they could be used in a way that is in line with our ideas of what are useful products. This kind of bioproduction, where tailor-made microorganisms grow on simple and natural feeds in the controlled environment of a bioreactor, can pose an attractive alternative to the current oil-based production of chemicals.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

Gaining independence from fossil resources is the undisputable challenge of the century. While there are already decent alternatives to replace oil and gas in the transportation sector, we still don’t know where we’ll get some important chemical products for our everyday lives, if they no longer come from an oil refinery.”

Even though my research group is looking at very fundamental scientific challenges, we are part of a community whose combined efforts will hopefully lead to technical solutions for the environmentally friendly and carbon-neutral production of our future chemicals.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

Our scientific questions all linger at the interface between chemistry and life sciences. Consequently, my research group consists of a mix of experts who bring with them their knowledge of chemical synthesis, microbiology, analysis and genetics.

In such an interdisciplinary environment, I learn something new every day myself, and I try to convey this message also to my students: stay curious beyond your own expertise and become an important piece of the puzzle in solving scientific challenges that are too big for just one discipline.


Jan Deska is Professor of Synthetic Chemistry at the Faculty of Science.

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