MarBiNa-Award 2023 goes to Dr. Maren Nattermann

The Max Planck researcher receives the Marburg Prize for Bio- and Nanotechnology for her work on the sustainable use of CO2

In her doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Maren Nattermann developed a synthetic metabolic pathway that makes it possible to use formic acid as a future starting point for the biotechnological production of valuable materials. On March 12, the Mayor of Marburg, Dr. Thomas Spies, presented her with the award of the Initiative Biotechnologie und Nanotechnologie e.V. (IBiNa).

Formate, also known as formic acid, is a possible intermediate product of synthetic photosynthesis. This synthetic metabolic pathway developed in the lab provides the basis for the enzymatic and environmentally friendly conversion of the greenhouse gas CO2 into valuable substances. The problem here is that formic acid has to be converted into the highly reactive formaldehyde using a great deal of energy for further processing. Formaldehyde, in turn, is a key raw material for the chemical and biotechnology industries. In her doctoral thesis, Maren Nattermann worked on making this conversion more economical and thus making formic acid usable by searching for new biocatalysts (enzymes) and combining them into an synthetic metabolic pathway. This allows the highly reactive formaldehyde to be produced from formic acid. She thus created a link between artificial photosynthesis, i.e. CO2 fixation, and biotechnological processing. In this interview, Maren Nattermann talks about her work.

Dr. Nattermann, why should we use formic acid biotechnologically?

My research focuses on the conversion of CO2 into products that are useful for humans, such as pharmaceuticals or biodiesel. But we are taking a small detour. CO2 is very difficult for our bacteria to process for a number of reasons, including the fact that it is a gas. That's why we first convert it to formic acid (a liquid), which is much easier to feed to our bacteria. My work was to find ways for the bacteria to use formic acid. That was the missing piece of the puzzle when I started my PhD, and it's very satisfying to have found it.

What applications do you see? 

The goal was to find ways to create value from an industrial waste product. In business we talk about  circular economy, so this is circular bioeconomy. We want to use CO2 as a raw material and stop using fossil resources. To do that, we need to find biological ways to do the steps as quickly and energy-efficiently as possible.

What does the award mean to you?

It is a great recognition of my work and I am very happy to receive it. It also helps to give visibility to this research, which is an exciting mix of basic research and potential applications.

How was the research process: straightforward or twisty?

Research projects are never straightforward. For a while, progress was slow until I got the experiments to the point where they worked. Then there were contradictory results that we couldn't explain at first. That was another puzzle I had to solve, and it took a lot of time and energy. But in the end it was really worth it: the results were very exciting.

What kept you motivated?

I just love being a biochemist. It's fascinating to delve deep into biological systems, understand how they work, and then modify them to make them useful for humans. It is particularly fascinating to see how incredibly flexible nature is, how many processes it can carry out even though there is no use for them in the "real world". I am motivated by every experiment that works. It's always great to untangle the knot after a few weeks of frustration. I also have a great family and a boyfriend who always support me. I am very grateful for their encouragement.

What made your time in the lab particularly memorable?

Unfortunately, COVID-19. I had just started my PhD when the pandemic hit and, like many others, I was only able to work on a very limited basis for a good six months. I can only say that it was very nice to see my colleagues without masks last year.

Do you have a vision of what could happen with the results?

A very clear one, and we are already working on it. As a first step, we want to achieve growth via my metabolic pathways and then start producing simpler products such as alcohol or components of biodiesel. But other research groups are already looking at how they can integrate my results into their research, and that is great for me to see.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm staying in Marburg for the time being because I want to conclude old projects here and build up new ones. I don't yet know where I'll go after that.

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View