Lisbeth Olsson

Big grant to develop new, robust microorganisms

​She wants to develop more robust microorganisms, with a high capacity for producing environmentally friendly materials, chemicals and fuels. For this, Professor Lisbeth Olsson receives over SEK 14 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
​The news came a few days ago: Lisbeth Olsson receives the prestigious grant as Distinguished Investigator from the Danish founding agency Novo Nordisk Foundation, NNF. The grant is given to established and senior researchers, who do pioneering research in biotechnology, and it entails a total of 14.3 million SEK over five years.

“This feels great. The NNF grant makes it possible for me to focus, with a large project that go into depths of my research,” says Professor Lisbeth Olsson, also Head of the division of Industrial Biotechnology at Chalmers Department of Biology and Biological Engineering.

“I will hire two doctoral students and a post-doc in this project, and expect them to join us this fall.”

Environmentally friendly production with microorganisms

Microorganisms can produce many of the substances we need – like bioethanol, plastics and pharmaceutical proteins – using, for example, biomass as raw material. But when the microorganisms are removed from their natural habitat to work in another environment, they may become stressed. This stress causes damage to the cell, and its attempt to repair the damage costs a lot of energy. Ultimately, the production capacity of the microorganisms, or even their survival ability, will be at stake.

Further knowledge is therefore needed to start new industrial processes where microorganisms are used, and also to streamline existing processes. The researchers want to find out how the microorganisms can become more robust, to withstand challenging environmental conditions.

“As I first came to Chalmers, 11 years ago, I defined microbial robustness as one of the areas where I wanted to focus. Over the years, we have also had a number of doctoral students working with this. Now it’s time to further develop the concept,” says Lisbeth Olsson.

“We will use large-scale tools, and take advantage of biodiversity existing in nature, as well as the one we have created in our lab. Our methods will be new, while taking advantage of the research we have done before. This will be "microbial robustness 2.0". Previously, we have also focused mainly on biomass. Now, we are working with a more generalized technology.”

Writing about biotechnology

The researchers' work while seeking grants means putting a lot of thought into every relevant problem, Lisbeth Olsson says.

“For each grant application you twist and turn your research issues, and dwell on the relevant questions. It is great to have received this grant – now I have the opportunity to realize what’s been on my mind.”

She is working in parallel with editing and writing chapters of a book on biofuels, where a chapter also is devoted to microbial robustness. This will be a follow-up to a book that came out ten years ago.

“It is really exciting to work with colleagues around the world, and reflect on the learnings from developing this research area in recent years,” Lisbeth Olsson concludes.

Note: Read more about the Research Leader Programme at Novo Nordisk Foundation here. You can also read the announcement text about the grants here​, or more about the recipients for research within biotechnology-based synthesis and production here​.


Text: Mia Malmstedt
Photo: Martina Butorac

Published: Thu 09 May 2019. Modified: Fri 10 May 2019