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PhD student in the c*change Paraffin Activation Programme, took part in UCT’s first ever Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition.

Bronwyn White, a PhD student in the c*change Paraffin Activation Programme, took part in UCT’s first ever Three Minute Thesis (3MT® www.threeminutethesis.org/index.html) competition on Wednesday 22 February. Contestants from a broad range of disciplines had just three minutes to present their work to a non-specialist audience. You can read more about the competition and access the programme notes here: http://www.research.uct.ac.za/3mt%C2%AE-launch-uct-packing-four-years-research-three-minutes. 

And here is a transcript of Bronwyn’s presentation:

Fossil fuels disappear today. What would we even lose? We already know how to make our electricity out of sunlight. We know how to make our petrol out of plants. We’d only have to give up our plastic bags…and our laptops…and our cell phones…and our clothes and our shoes and our furniture and our kitchen appliances and our paint, our ink, our paper, our glue, our soap, our make-up, our chewing gum…we’d only have to give up our tampons, ladies. No biggie.

Fossil fuels give us so much more than just petrol. Almost any product you can think of contains, or was manufactured using petrochemicals: chemicals derived from petroleum. What do we do when the oil runs out?

Luckily for us, there are biological systems that can produce and modify petrochemicals. Unfortunately, they’re not always well-suited for intensive production processes. A lot of my work has been looking at how basic cellular functions affect a microorganism’s ability to cope with toxic petrochemical-rich environments.

I’m testing a protein complex known as cytochrome P450, which adds oxygen molecules to petrol-like substances. But counter-intuitively, if you want to optimise the performance of the cytochrome P450, you shouldn’t be looking at the cytochrome P450. You have to focus on the supporting cellular processes. Like how the cell turns simple sugars into energy, and how petrochemical molecules interact with the membrane that surrounds the cell.

If you want to make petrochemicals biologically, finding the right protein for the job is only the start. It’s all about developing a high-functioning organism. In my case this means looking at the expression of other proteins alongside the cytochrome P450 – proteins that enhance energy production and proteins that move petrochemicals in and out of the cell.

Hopefully, this will help us create microbes that are better equipped to handle toxic environments, ready to become powerhouses for the petrochemical industry of the future.

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