Green Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering of Shewanella oneidensis for enhanced Rare Earth Element Extractions for Arctic & Space Applications


Michael Martinez

Rare earth elements (REE) are highly sought after for their powerful magnetic properties and their applications in batteries used in new technology. These REE are involved in critical sectors which the United States needs to accelerate because other nations are moving swiftly in technological development such as China. China controls the world’s largest REE supply and current Chinese investments to Russia pose an Arctic security danger. To clarify the importance of these elements, REE are used to produce F-35 fighter jets, to create energy efficient vehicles such as electric cars which are increasing in production and they are used in advanced space aircraft like that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The F-35 fighter jet, made by Lockheed Martin Corporation, alone requires 417kg of REE to power its electrical systems and precision technology components (Yu and Sevastopulo, 2021). The global REE market will reach approximately $6.6 Billion by 2027 (Research and Markets, 2021) and as the industries requiring REE for power increase so will the value of REE. Genetic engineering of Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 has been done before to enhance biochemical pathways and amplifying genes for extracellular electron transfer functions; amplified target gene was mtrCAB porin-c-type cytochrome complex (Cao et al., 2019). The microorganism is a facultative anaerobe which means it can live in anoxic and oxic environments. This allows for applications of biomining under various conditions like in the Arctic and space. The mtrCAB gene will be altered to become overexpressed so extracellular electron transfers may be increased so as to bioweather the iron molecules inside the coal ore at a faster rate. The previous research performed on mtrCAB found medium expression of mtrCAB levels increased the extracellular electron transfers, but this proposal seeks to increase the mtrCAB gene to a higher level of expression within the newly developed S. oneidensis strain from the 2020-2021 project done by Michael Martinez. Space mining for REE has been attempted in 2019 using microorganisms under various microgravity conditions (Cockell et al, 2020). The results showed no significant advantages of their chosen microbes to biomine REE on the International Space Station versus Earth conditions. When mining begins in space, the same conventional methods used on Earth cannot be used in space as the waste and environmental damage is too great. For example, Mitsubishi Chemical mine company had to go back to its REE site to clean up the waste and the cost was estimated at $100 million; the site waste may be related to increased leukemia seen in nearby residents (Ives, 2013). NASA’s target goal to increase scientific knowledge in space technology can be benefited with this biomining technology. Shewanella oneidensis is a great candidate to develop into a green biomining agent due to preliminary data showing REE extractions in circumneutral pH. If biomining is to occur in space, green biotechnology will be needed and Shewanella oneidensis may provide the means to a more cost effective green biomining method.


Name: Michael Martinez, Undergraduate Student

Institution: University of Alaska Anchorage

Major: Chemistry

Mentor: Brandon Briggs

Award: Apprenticeship

Funding Period: 2021 to 2022