SYMBIONT will become a worldwide unique facility for research on mixed microbial cultures. It removes the barriers for breakthroughs in knowledge and application of mixed cultures, and will develop new microbial conversions key to solving major societal challenges. This is required to address the needs of the growing world population, in food-health relations, biobased industrial activities, scarcity in raw materials, set up of a circular economy by reuse of waste streams, etc.
SYMBIONT capabilities, To be constructed, when financially granted
Nature contains a wealth of yet unexplored and uncultured micro-organisms. The seemingly endless number of ecological niches (combinations of temperature, pressure, nutrient availability, pH, etc.) results in enormous microbial diversity, with great potential for industrial use. SYMBIONT will be equipped with parallel sets of reactors that enable exploring the microbial potential, and developing processes based on enriched cultures. All reactors are fitted with online equipment to measure conditions and functionality and mixed culture molecular characteristics (e.g. HPLC, GC, gas-MS, flow injection analysis, flow cytometry with FACS), and advanced equipment for sampling for offline analysis (e.g. ICP-MS, FCM/FACS, metatranscriptomics and metaproteomics). This is essential for understanding the mechanisms underlying microbial functionality, and mechanisms that shape the microbial symbiosis in mixed cultures. The reactor types are:
• High P and T: the reactors can be operated at pressures up to 130 bar, and temperatures in the range of 10 to 350 °C. More ‘exotic’ ecosystems, e.g. volcanic vents in the deep sea and the deeper subsurface, contain micro-organisms with the ability of very interesting conversions. These can be cultured and studied in the ‘high P and T’ reactors.
• Low concentrations: these reactors are aimed at research of oligotrophic ecosystems, i.e. ecosystems with low content of nutrients or carbon sources for microbial growth, e.g. groundwater systems used for drinking water production.
• Dynamic culturing: many natural microbial ecosystems experience variations in external conditions (e.g. sunlight or moisture). This affects the composition and functionality of mixed cultures. Varying conditions during culturing can enable tailoring mixed cultures to the functionality desired.
• Bioelectrodes: electron transfer to and from micro-organisms for microbial growth and generation of interesting bio-electrochemical reactions, e.g. the formation of carbohydrates from water and CO2.
• Artificial gut: the intestinal tract of animals and humans contains microbiota that play an essential role in food uptake and the immune system. Multistage reactors simulating the compartmentalized gut of infants and adults enable research on improving the functionality of the microbiota, e.g. through development of functional foods, lowering the need for antibiotics, and defined mixed populations as innovative therapeutics.
SYMBIONT is open to scientists from universities, knowledge institutes and industry worldwide. They can work together with top scientists in Wageningen and Delft, or rent part of the facility. SYMBIONT offers an exciting workplace for external users, and will assist in attracting foreign scientists that want to conduct their breakthrough research and may decide to stay in the Netherlands (brain gain).
The Wageningen and Delft universities have already invested in facilities that serve as stepping stones for SYMBIONT. WU has started SYMBIONT in small scale in the laboratories of Environmental Technology (MODUTECH) and Microbiology, and results are reported here.