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by Elise Wachspress
Image courtesy of Regio Energie Solothurn

WellNews usually reports on groundbreaking research on the immune system, genetics, and the microbiome that promotes wellness—at the level of the individual.

Now for something totally different.

Laurens Mets is studying ancient microbes—archaea—as a way of improving human health for everyone in the world, banking on these tiny organisms to help clean up our environment, remove carbon dioxide from the air, and perhaps save the planet.

On the surface, archaea look something like bacteria, with similar shapes and no nuclei. But unlike bacteria, they have some genetic and metabolic similarities to plants and animals—and some traits that make them totally unlike either group. It wasn’t until 1977 that Carl Woese and George E. Fox proved archaea were a totally different domain, with their own separate, major branch on the “tree” of life.

The first archaea discovered were “extremophiles,” organisms that prospered in harsh environments like hot springs and salt lakes. Now they’ve been found everywhere, including in our own bodies. Archaea are amazing life-forms, in that they can live on a huge diversity of energy sources: ammonia, metal ions, even hydrogen gas. Some salt-tolerant types use sunlight as an energy source, and others can fix carbon from the atmosphere. They are particularly numerous in the oceans, and so far, none seem to be pathogenic.

Mets’s idea was to find and optimize archaea that would metabolize the garbage in our landfills and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—by-products of our own energy use—and then turn these into fuels. And he’s developed some proprietary strains of archaea (starting from some originally isolated from a hot spring in Iceland) that are already doing just that—in two different ways.

In the case of garbage, the approach is to “gasify” carbon-based trash (which is most of what fills our landfills) at extremely high temperatures, creating a mixture of largely hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. That part has been done by several other methods, but with an implicit problem: how do you manage the deadly carbon monoxide? Mets’s process uses archaea as a biocatalyst to turn the entire mixture—including the carbon monoxide—into methane. Methane makes up the bulk of what we call natural gas, a relatively clean fuel that is easily transported and stored through existing systems.

A new approach to carbon capture?
In the second approach, Mets uses archaea to solve two problems with solar and wind power. First, both generate energy as electricity, which currently meets less than 20 percent of the U.S.’s energy needs. Perhaps more important, solar and wind energy are intermittent, tough to store, and poorly matched to variation in demand over daily or yearly cycles. But Mets’s archaea can use energy from excess electricity to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into methane. Switching from natural gas to electricity and back again would not only mitigate the variabilities in electricity production but also incentivize greater reliance on these renewable energy sources—and reduce net carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

With help from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the University of Chicago has licensed out the early versions of Mets’s archaea technology to a German Company, Electrochaea GmbH. Germany and much of Eastern Europe, famously dependent on Russian fuel, recognize a crucial need for increased energy diversification. As Mich Hein, CEO of Electrochaea (and former entrepreneur in residence at the Polsky Center) pointed out in advance of last year’s Energy Storage Europe conference, the archaea technology can serve as “a drop-in replacement for fossil natural gas that can be stored or transported in existing natural gas infrastructure. The renewable gas product unites different energy sectors and provides economic leverage for owners and operators of existing assets.”

Electrochaea is now a partner in a venture called Store&Go that just opened a new plant in Switzerland, introduced by an absolutely charming spokesmodel: Archie, an archaea who demonstrates just how he cleans up after our own energy expenditures to make more fuels.

Mets, however, believes he can push the technologies much further. While he has developed the most energy-efficient strain of archaea so far, he is convinced that he and his lab can do better. These molecular geneticists want to advance experiments to iteratively select, mutate, and then sequence the genomes of the most carbon monoxide-tolerant archaea and develop microbes that are increasingly efficient at turning our carbon-based waste into storable, transportable fuel.

If archaea technology can create a closed loop for carbon-based fuels, where carbon uptake equals carbon emissions, the world may have reason to heave a sigh of relief. After the past decade of increasing global temperatures and dramatic variations in weather patterns—some costing cities and countries trillions of dollars—it is becoming clear that man-made climate change is threatening millions of lives around the world. Mets’s research (and yes, he is looking for funding support) holds the potential to save both money and the planet. These microbes could indeed help the entire world’s population—and all the other animals who live here—become healthier in many ways.

Elise Wachspress is a senior communications strategist for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office