IMB researchers build links with world

18 May 2010

Two researchers from the IMB will collaborate with international experts to overcome obstacles to algal biofuel production and the development of drugs to treat antibiotic-resistant infections.

Evan Stephens and Professor Jenny Martin were both awarded Queensland International Fellowships, which aim to strengthen the State's global knowledge alliances and give researchers the opportunity to travel overseas for at least 12 weeks to undertake a high-quality, technically feasible and strategically valuable project with a leading international knowledge partner.

The applications from both IMB researchers were selected as the best in their category, with Mr Stephen's in the Renewable Energies Category and Professor Martin's in Biotechnology.

Mr Stephens, a PhD student in Associate Professor Ben Hankamer's laboratory, will visit researchers in Germany with whom he and Dr Hankamer have been collaborating for the past four years on developing methods to harvest the fuel feedstocks naturally produced by microalgae and increase their fuel production capacity.

"The development of clean fuels is one of the most urgent challenges facing our society, but most renewable energy technologies target electricity production," Mr Stephens said.

"Biofuels specifically replace petroleum fuels, which account for around two-thirds of global energy demands. Investment in algal biofuels is rapidly expanding, but economically viable systems have not yet been achieved."

The IMB team recently published a paper in scientific journal Nature Biotechnology outlining the key obstacles to commercial production of microalgal biofuels.

These include the productivity of the algae, the optimisation and cost reduction of the bioreactors in which the algae grow, and the co-production of high-value products that can offset the initial capital costs and generate other products of value to the community and industry.

"I will exchange knowledge and techniques with our collaborators to address the challenge of improving the economics of integrated microalgal production systems as a whole.

"The capacity to work closely with the German researchers that this fellowship allows will consolidate our data and strategies and facilitate a transfer of valuable skills that will be applied back in Queensland."

Professor Martin, an Australian Laureate Fellow, will travel to the UK to work for four months with leading membrane protein expert Professor So Iwata at his Membrane Protein Laboratory (MPL) located next to Diamond, the UK Synchrotron, in Harwell.

"Membrane proteins are critical to life because they are located at the interface between cells and their environments; membrane proteins respond to incoming signals, recognise invaders and establish molecular defences," Professor Martin said.

"Furthermore, most drugs act by affecting membrane protein function, so they play an important role in health and medicine."

The training Professor Martin receives in Professor Iwata's lab will enable her to establish technologies in Queensland to accelerate the process of membrane protein structure determination. Her research focuses on undertanding proteins involved in bacterial infection and type 2 diabetes.

"My work in these areas provides a basis for the development of new leads for antibacterial and antidiabetic drugs, including drugs for antibiotic-resistant infections," Professor Martin said. "However, many of the key proteins we would like to tackle are membrane proteins. Until now we have had limited ability to work on these."

"The new technologies and skills gained at MPL will help us tackle these important and challenging problems by speeding up our membrane protein research and thereby providing new pathways to understand, prevent and cure disease."

UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Max Lu said the fellowships meant UQ's international research links would become even stronger.

"I congratulate all of our Fellowship winners and look forward to seeing the fruits of their collaboration in the future," Professor Lu said.

Media contact:

IMB Communications - 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247