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Jorge Rico

Colorado State University, PhD
EREF Scholar 2021

Microbiome Shaping Analysis of Rewired Anaerobic DigestionProject Description:
Under anaerobic conditions, some microbes (and groups of microbes) can transform organic residues into valuable chemicals, including methane and volatile fatty acids (e.g. acetic acid is vinegar). This process is known as anaerobic digestion (AD), and has been traditionally used to produce energy in the form of methane biogas.

In the past years, alternative opportunities in AD have emerged to produce fatty acids instead of methane because they are more economically valuable products. We call this process Rewired Anaerobic Digestion (RWAD) since microbes selectively produce fatty acids instead of methane through specific pathways. We do not fully understand these pathways, and only a limited number of microbial communities have been studied. The role of several microbial species in RWAD is unknown. This lack of available information has challenged RWAD since achieving high yields of desired fatty acid products is a significant limitation for a successful process scale-up.

Rico will use molecular biology tools, such as DNA sequencing, to understand microbial communities and fatty acid-producing metabolic pathways in RWAD. These tools can help us to identify microbes that contribute to specific fatty acid production pathways. Rico will conduct experiments with novel microbial inoculum sources (including microbes from cattle and bison stomach) under a set of different operating conditions. The goal is to optimize the system and generate models that can inform better-operating strategies. This knowledge will be fundamental to achieving higher yields, engineering microbial communities and addressing techno-economic barriers in the next advanced organic waste valorization system.

Jorge is a PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, which he began in fall 2019. He earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from the Industrial University of Santander (Colombia) in 2014 and an MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Colorado State University in 2019. His areas of focus are environmental biotechnology, organic waste valorization, and food-energy-water systems. Jorge is passionate about environmental sustainability and justice. He is co-founder of an environmental movement in Colombia and has organized national clean-up actions involving multiple stakeholders, including citizens, municipalities, and waste management companies. Jorge has worked during the past years on developing advanced anaerobic digestion of organic residues to produce high-added value chemicals. His approach involves using molecular biology tools to understand better how operating conditions affect microbial communities and biochemical pathways in the process. He envisions that the development of this technology could incentivize better waste management practices by offering economic incentives to communities, industries, and governments. Jorge aims to work in integrating research and technological developments with effective policies and communication strategies. He believes that multidisciplinary approaches are demanded to inspire communities to take concrete actions towards a more sustainable and healthier world.