Student is highlight speaker at the National Natural Sciences Student Conference

Published by  Communications

On 4th Jun 2021

Fourth year Natural Sciences student Lewis Williams was selected as the student highlight speaker at the 4th Annual National Natural Sciences Student Conference, hosted virtually by the University of York on Monday 29 March.

The conference consisted of talks from Natural Sciences students from across the country, including talks from two other UEA students. All presented research from their final year projects on a wide variety of subjects from fusion reactors to astrobiology, demonstrating the versatility afforded in UEA’s Natural Sciences degree programmes. Also included in the conference were talks from interdisciplinary research leaders including Professor Tom McLeish, a physicist who has been involved in projects ranging from polymer synthesis to medieval studies.  

Lewis’ talk, entitled ‘From Sunlight to Chemicals via Bacteria: Developing Molecular Wires for Use in Artificial Photosynthesis Systems’, detailed work undertaken under the supervision of Professor Julea Butt for his final year MChem project. Lewis’ work examines protein from the surface of a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis. This protein, called MtrC, has ten iron atoms which make it electrically conductive. In nature MtrC acts as a very small wire and allows Shewanella to ‘plug into’ metal present in its environment. This metal acts analogously to the positive end of a battery and triggers a flow of electrical current though the bacterial cells. Research in Prof. Butt’s lab is investigating how MtrC might be used to create what are known as semi-artificial photosynthetic devices. These devices are able to use the power of the sun to create useful chemicals, much like plants do in natural photosynthesis. Tiny light-harvesting molecules called photosensitisers can be attached to MtrC where they act like tiny solar panels and allow light driven electron injection into the protein. It is hoped that these finding will allow MtrC to pass solar electricity into bacterial cells to drive enzyme catalysed production of fuels and other valuable chemicals.  

Lewis’ project work examined two samples of MtrC. These differed in the location of photosensitiser attachment to the protein and Lewis used a variety of spectroscopic methods to establish how fast electricity flowed from the photosensitiser to MtrC, and through MtrC itself. His findings will inform design decisions in the development of semi-artificial photosynthetic devices. If successful, it is envisaged that these devices will be able to utilise the vast range of enzymes found across the bacterial kingdom to create many useful chemicals from sunlight in a clean, sustainable and energy efficient manner. 

Applications to deliver a talk at the Annual National Natural Sciences Student Conference are open to any UK Natural Sciences student carrying out a research project.  

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