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Solar Energy to Biomass - Optimisation of light energy conversion in plants and microalgae

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SE2B (Solar Energy to Biomass - Optimisation of light energy conversion in plants and microalgae)

Reporting period: 2018-03-01 to 2020-08-31

In the face of the increasing global consumption of fossil resources, photosynthetic organisms offer an attractive alternative that could meet our rising future needs as clean, renewable, sources of energy and for the production of fine chemicals. Key to the efficient exploitation of these organisms is to optimise the conversion of Solar Energy into Biomass (SE2B, The SE2B network deals with this optimisation in an interdisciplinary approach including molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics and biotechnology. Regulation processes at the level of the photosynthetic membranes, integrating molecular processes within individual proteins up to flexible re-arrangements of the membranes are analysed as a dynamic network of interacting regulations. SE2B will yield information about the similarities and differences between cyanobacteria, green algae, diatoms and higher plants, the organisms most commonly employed in biotechnological approaches exploiting photosynthetic organisms, as well as in agriculture.
The knowledge gained from understanding these phenomena will be directly transferred to increase the productivity of algal mass cultures for valuable products, and for the development of sophisticated analytic devices that are used to optimise this production. In future, the knowledge created can also be applicable to the design of synthetic cell factories with efficient light harvesting and energy conversion systems.
Results of the SE2B project were made available by 50 publications, 3 international conferences, and numerous presentations by lectures of posters on conferences.
The work was separated in seven WPs, three scientific WPs (WP1-3), training (WP4), management (WP5), recruitment (WP6) and dissemination/outreach (WP7).

The objectives of the scientific WPs (WP1-3) were to elucidate the role and function of specific thylakoid proteins and carotenoids involved in the regulation of light use efficiency, to study the structure and dynamics of supercomplexes in the thylakoid membrane and their physiological relevance for the performance of the organisms under different environmental conditions, and to study this flexibility in vivo. All these questions were studied in different organisms from cyanobacteria to land plants and are related to the exploitation of this knowledge for biomass production. The research question provided a great opportunity for the training of excellent researchers in the multidisciplinary field of photosynthesis. With regards to the importance for society, the research efforts e.g. on the photosynthesis of conifers, as prominent species of the boreal forest ecosystem, is filling the gaps in the poorly characterized land plant group of gymnosperms, enabling us to better understand the evolution of land plants. More so it is providing with us the opportunity to test our current understanding of the regulation of photosynthesis in higher plants, which so far is mainly derived from angiosperms. The same holds for the extensive studies done on cyanobacteria and algae, increasing our knowledge about their regulation of photosynthesis and thus enabling better ways to improve biomass. The development of experimental methods to comprehend photosynthetic regulation is especially important for further development and advancement of models to photosynthetic primary production in changing environments.

WP4, 5, 6 and 7: SE2B recruited 17 ESRs that are highly qualified and provided them with excellent training. In addition, ESRs were trained in dissemination of their results by conference presentations, publications and by setting up MOOCs. Every ESR working in an academic surrounding took an industry secondment (beside academic secondements) and vice versa. The ESRs also learned about perspectives in setting-up a company on their own.
17 ESRs from 11 different countries of origin had been selected and employed in SE2B with the plan to get a PhD and to become independent, self-responsible researcher of international visibility and linked to an appropriate international research network. Meanwhile, 50 publications (with further submitted or in preparation), two online MOOCs and other dissemination activities increased the visibility of the SE2B project. All ESRs presented their projects at conferences and/or meetings including the SE2B international conferences.
Impact on ESRs:
The ESRs published their results in (high-ranking) scientific journals, presented their results to an international audience of experts at conferences and prepared MOOCs about their research. Due to many collaborative studies inside the network, but also due to the regular meetings of ESRs on network events, they formed a tight group amongst themselves, enabling them to independently organize the last international conference on their own and to currently write a review article about the outcome of SE2B. In addition, they all got exposed to the academic as well as the industrial environment, allowing them educated choices for their future careers. Three ESRs already obtained their PhD. The others will do so in the near future. At least 13 of the ESRs announced to have their PhD in June 2021.
Except one, all ESRs working in the SE2B project in the 2nd reporting period are employed. Seven of them got an extension of their work contract to finish their research for their PhD, seven have a postdoc position, and one ESR will get a position as associate professor.

Scientific impact:
During SE2B, novel biochemical tools to investigate the composition of thylakoid protein complexes in evergreen conifers, algae and plants have been developed, as well as sophisticated spectroscopic and microscopic techniques. Most ESR contributed to the understanding of the role and function of special proteins in regulation of the use of light energy, as well as the dynamics and flexible reorganization of photosystem supercomplexes in many species, crucial to increase light use efficiency. The results were well received in the international research community and went well beyond the state of the art, visible by many publications in the highest ranking journals of the field.

Beyond the academic community, SE2B also made its impact:
The elucidation of the regulation of winter acclimation of the prominent species in the boreal forest ecosystem, Norway spruce, is potentially important for designing sustainable forestation.
The work of the company PSI has been fundamental in the development of precise protocols for the use of high-throughput automated plant phenotyping platforms in the screening of potential biostimulant substances. These techniques are of high interest for biostimulant companies, since they are able to hugely reduce the amount of time and human work needed for the testing of multiple compounds at the same time, facilitating the investigation of the most effective dose and developmental stage for the substance’s application.
Together with Phycosource, the production parameters for cryptophycin, a potential anticancer drug, were developed.
The characterization of the interaction of domains of the OCP allowed the discovery of a new and important carotenoid translocation mechanism, that might enable using these proteins to target antioxidant molecules to specific plant and human cells.