The Schenk Lab aims to address Global Issues in Food, Water and Energy Security by discovering and developing cutting-edge Solutions from Science and Technology.
Plant and Microbial Biotechnology
At present 815 million people do not have enough to eat and global food production must increase by at least 60% until 2050. Increasing numbers of plant diseases, climatic variability and unsustainable practices provide major threats to Food Security.
The Plant-Microbe Interactions Group specialises in the discovery of new genes from plants and microorganisms with potential for crop improvement. This team develops disease-resistant plants and identifies novel compounds from microbial communities associated with the rhizosphere of plants. The lab holds a collection of >2,000 rhizosphere microbes with characterised functions. Using a Functional Genomics approach to study beneficial and parasitic interactions between plants and microbes, three strategies for disease resistance and abiotic stress tolerance have been developed:
(1) Modulation of defence and abiotic stress signalling genes
(2) Development of microbial biofertilisers and biopesticides
(3) Biodiscovery of new bioactive biological compounds
In conjunction with industry we're working on improving crop plants for abiotic stress tolerance (drought, salinity) and resistance against fungi, oomycetes, bacteria, viruses and nematodes. Click here for our Start-up Nexgen Plants Pty Ltd and find out how we implement Intragenics, a new non-GM genome-editing technology to unlock and introduce new traits to plants from unused regions in their genomes.
Hydrate Gel Filtration
2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home and tap water in many Asian, African, South and Central American countries is currently unsafe to drink. Even tap water in industrialised nations may still contain hundreds of different species of bacteria, protozoa and viruses.
Schenk Lab's Hydrate Gel Filtration project has developed simple, low-cost filter prototypes based on our patented technology to enable production of affordable, clean, safe water. Hydrate Gel Filtration uses a gelatinous layer of hydrate with a pore size of only 10 nm that enables high flux nanofiltration of contaminated water. Properties include 30-fold higher unassisted and pressure-assisted flux than currently available membranes, pressure-resistance, impenetrability to filtered particles, easy cleaning by backwashing and simple, cost-effective replacement of low-cost gel filter cartridges.
As a result, filtration of water (e.g. turbid river water) contaminated with colloids and microorganisms, yields clear water free of measurable particles or detectable microorganisms (including viruses; 99.99999% removal), while small water-soluble molecules (salts, sugars, proteins) remain in the filtrate. Hydrophobic molecules, such as oils and hydrocarbons can also not pass the gel layer.
We have demonstrated the viability of hydrate gel filtration at scale with high-flux, low-cost water purification devices and are currently working with the University of Queensland's commercialisation team, UniQuest on multiple pilot projects. Our first prototypes include a user-friendly Tap Filter, a 2-Litre Water Jug, a 10-Litre bucket filter, a survival kit and an industrial 1 m2 hydrate filter.
For more information please contact us to get involved.
Microalgae - A renewable source of feed, fuel and nutraceuticals
Food and Energy Security are closely linked. 80% of current energy supply comes from fossil fuels but nearly all renewable energy sources produce electricity and not fuel. Even with electric cars we will still need fuel for aviation and ships. Unfortunately, first generation biofuels compete with arable land or destroy biodiverse landscapes. Microalgae can be farmed without competing for arable land or biodiverse landscapes with nearly any type of water (fresh, brackish, seawater or nutrient-rich wastewater).
The Algae Biotechnology Group aims to sustainably produce oil, protein-rich biomass and high-value products from microalgae. We identify local freshwater and marine strains that are efficient producers of lipids, crude protein and nutraceuticals, then optimise these by using adaptive evolution and metabolic engineering. Our lab takes a "Non-GM" approach to strain improvement specialising in aquatic-crop optimisation aimed at providing our industry partners with cost-effective oil, animal feed and nutraceutical products. We also use the small aquatic plant Lemna for water treatment and efficient nutrient recovery from farm effluents.
Over the last 12 years, we have developed and implemented simple, low-cost technologies for all steps of algae cultivation, harvesting and extraction processes. This enables simple, farm-scale microalgae production, providing algal based products to the nutraceutical, animal feed biodiesel markets. Our technologies are demonstrated on large scale at the UQ Algae Energy Farm in Pinjarra Hills, Queensland, Australia and we have helped construct two commercial farms in Australia and the Middle East. This demonstration farm unlocks microalgae’s potential as a zero-waste bio-refinery concept, using a range of different microalgae to produce oil for omega-3 fatty acids and biodiesel, as well as protein-rich biomass for food and animal feed. For example, remaining biomass after oil extraction is used for high-value protein extraction or animal feed. Yields are approx. 80 tons DW per hectare per year. The option to combine oil extraction with anaerobic digestion of the remaining biomass enables closing the loop for sustainable nutrient recycling and organic farming. This enables for the first time a fully sustainable Solar Power Plant that Produces Fuel.
For farmers and industry partners we offer a 360° approach to algae cultivation, harvesting and extraction. This includes supply of suitable strains, training at the Algae Energy Farm, assistance with farm design, techno-economic analyses for various production scenarios, as well as assistance during farm construction and operation during the first 2 years.