Scientists explore uncharted Chinese lakes for new biotechnology

UK scientists will be among the first European researchers to explore remote areas of China in the quest to find new forms of microbial life. The team hopes to develop new biocatalysts from the enzymes of microbes living in harsh environments unencountered in the Western world.

Expeditions to soda lakes, salt lakes and hot springs in remote regions of Mongolia and Tibet will collect the enzymes and DNA of microbes living in the harsh conditions. The €1 million collaboration between Europe and China hopes to discover new biocatalysts for the detergent and textile industries, together currently valued at more than US$1 billion a year.

“It’s all about finding useful products in odd environments,” expedition leader Professor Bill Grant told edie, adding that this is the first time European scientists have been granted access to Chinese extreme environments. The collaboration, headed by the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, will establish an important bridgehead in microbial biotechnology cooperation between the EU and China.

“Chinese lakes are unique and relatively unexplored,” says the Leicester University professor, who has spent much of his time investigating soda lakes in East Africa, where enzymes have been discovered and commercialised in biotechnology processes. Grant knows the same discoveries could be made in China. “The particular sites we’ll be visiting have got strange chemistries quite unlike other lakes. Chemistry drives the microbiology in lake systems, so we can expect to find new useful genes.”

The team are especially keen to explore high lithium and high potassium lakes. “You don’t see those kinds of conditions in East Africa or Europe,” continues Grant. “The chemistry of these lakes has never really been written about in Western scientific literature.”

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