University of Dundee

Professor Frank Sargent to deliver Wain Medal Lecture

16 Nov 2010

Professor Frank Sargent to deliver Wain Medal Lecture 

Professor Frank Sargent of the Division of Molecular Microbiology will give the 2010 Wain Medal Lecture at the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus on Friday 19 November.

Entitled “Bioenergy and Biofuels: Learning from Bacteria”, his lecture will take place in Woolf College Lecture Theatre at 5pm. The Wain Medal Lecture is public, free lecture presented in a way that is accessible to scientists and non-scientists alike.

Professor Sargent is the 2010 winner of the Wain Medal. Awarded annually in memory of Professor Louis Wain CBE, a former Honorary Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kent, the Wain Medal recognises the achievements of an outstanding young scientist working at the interface of biology and chemistry.

Frank Sargent is Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Bacterial Physiology; research focuses on the methods employed by bacteria to fuel their growth, and their application in the extraction of biofuels.

Professor Sargent’s outstanding work in this area has previously been recognised by a number of awards, including the Fleming Prize and Lecture, the Colworth Medal and Lecture, and the FEBS Letters Young Scientist Award.

An abstract of Professor Sargent’s Medal-winning Lecture is given below.

Bioenergy and biofuels: learning from bacteria 

Bacteria are often described as being some of the simplest living things on Earth. Scratch the surface, however, and these single-celled organisms reveal rich and complex biology and chemistry. For example, many bacteria can live and grow without oxygen, and instead utilise other chemicals from the environment to generate energy for life. Sometimes the chemicals used appear unusual. For instance, bacteria can use one of the simplest molecules in the Universe to gain energy for growth: hydrogen. To get energy from hydrogen bacteria contain special proteins or enzymes called 'hydrogenases', which themselves are made-up of many different smaller proteins that contain metal and sulphur atoms. Moreover, many hydrogenases must be positioned 'outside' on the surface of the cell in order to operate efficiently. Targeting of proteins to the outside of the cell envelope is called protein export and bacteria have developed an elaborate targeting system for decorating the cell surface with complicated enzymes such as hydrogenases. As well as utilising hydrogen as an energy source for growth, under certain environmental conditions some bacteria can change their cellular metabolism to produce hydrogen gas as a by-product. The scope for tapping into this resource is enormous. Hydrogen has the highest energy per weight of any fuel and its use, particularly in a fuel cell, is clean and efficient. Understanding the way hydrogenases work, both at the atomic level and within living organisms, is an important factor in being able to design and build stable synthetic enzymes or micro-organisms that may help bring about future, fully renewable, and healthy hydrogen energy technologies.