Plant power from the bioreactor

Photo of Angela Vargas Rodriguez

Bacteria do not have a good reputation. Many are responsible for serious diseases. Nonetheless, some are good for humans, animals and plants. At Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the doctoral student Angela Vargas Rodriguez from Colombia has developed a method in which bacteria produce plant-based molecules.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in May 2020, the biotechnologist Angela Vargas Rodriguez began her doctoral degree at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). “There can only be two people in the lab at the same time, and only one person in the office, but it has worked out pretty well so far”, she says. “However, there is of course always this worry that I might have to go into self-isolation – and would then have to begin the experiment I’m currently working on from scratch again.” The 32-year-old from Colombia specialises in “metabolic engineering” – methods of genetically changing the metabolic processes in organisms. She is experimenting in her lab with E. coli bacteria, which can produce ferulic acid. A phytochemical, this acid forms the basis of chemical compounds that have neuroprotective and anti-microbial properties. In addition, ferulic acid can be used to manufacture the flavouring agent vanillin, which is in high demand worldwide.

From research to industrial application

Currently, the acid that plants produce in their cell walls is extracted from production residues of corn, rice or wheat using solvents and heat. “It is easier and cheaper to have microorganisms produce the ferulic acid”, says Angela Vargas Rodriguez. In 2019, researchers at the Institute of Pharmacy at the MLU and at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry (IPB Halle) succeeded in isolating the enzymes required for the production of ferulic acid and in modifying E. coli bacteria in such a way that they would produce these enzymes. “Our research group is now working on improving the method so it can be used industrially”, explains the doctoral student. Alongside the two institutes in Halle, the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes (CPB) in Leuna is involved in the project, which is being funded to the tune of 1.5 million euros for three years by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

International research environment

Angela Vargas Rodriguez came to Halle in the state of Saxony-Anhalt in 2015 to do her master’s degree. She had completed her bachelor’s in pharmaceutical chemistry in her home city of Bogotá and then spent four years working first for a vaccine manufacturer and then for a biotech company. “I found the field so incredibly interesting that I wanted to learn more and specialise”, she explains. “A colleague who had studied in Germany told me about the good research opportunities here. At the time, I was already thinking about doing a PhD after my master’s, but there aren’t many options available in Colombia.” While researching online, Vargas Rodriguez stumbled across a master’s degree, taught in English, in Pharmaceutical and Industrial Biotechnology. “It was a perfect match for my pharmaceutical background and enabled me to acquire some important basic skills that I was lacking, such as in molecular biology. What was also great was that students came from all over the world and were just as new here as I was. That made it much easier to begin a new life in Germany!” Her love of dance also helped her quickly find a circle of friends. “In Colombia we learn all kinds of different dances while we are still kids, so we don’t need to take any classes! All the same, I went to dance classes at uni as a way of meeting people. Before the pandemic we would regularly meet at salsa and bachata parties, and would also often go to Leipzig for the same reason. I miss that a lot.” Now Vargas Rodriguez spends her free time cycling and walking along the river Saale, which is close to her flat. “What I like about the city is the beautiful nature and the fact that it is so compact, so you go everywhere by foot.”

As the doctoral student explains, she was already curious about biological and chemical processes as a child: “Your finger hurts so you take a pill and the pain goes away. I couldn’t stop thinking about that – I really wanted to understand how chemical and biological processes work.” This curiosity is something she has retained to this day. Once she has completed her PhD, Angela Vargas Rodriguez would like to spend a few more years in Germany to continue her research.

Author: Miriam Hoffmeyer