Oranges taken out of the lab to explain science

4 Jun 2014
PhD student Tim Brennan presenting his innovative research at 2014 FameLab Australia
PhD student Tim Brennan presenting his innovative research at 2014 FameLab AustraliaCaption

Using an orange to explain the properties of renewable jet fuel from sugar, University of Queensland (UQ) PhD student Mr Tim Brennan has presented his innovative research at the 2014 FameLab Australia competition.

FameLab is a global science communication competition which challenges early-career researchers to communicate their work accessibly to a non-scientific audience. 

Mr Brennan who is studying at UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) said, “To be able to communicate how your scientific research impacts upon people every day is very important.” 

“The ability to communicate difficult ideas, clearly and concisely is key to progress.”

After winning the Queensland heat, Mr Brennan travelled to Western Australia to compete in the National Finals and was selected as the runner-up. 

“We received great communication training throughout the competition and I learnt how important correct breathing and body language can be during a talk,” Mr Brennan explained.

The national final event saw the FameLab Australia finalists explain their research in dynamic three-minute presentations.

During the two rounds of the competition, Mr Brennan explained his research with a simple visual: an orange.

As part of the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative, Mr Brennan is working with colleagues at AIBN who are genetically engineering baker’s yeast to make an oil called limonene, which is found naturally in oranges and lemons, and also happens to be an efficient jet fuel.

“When you open an orange, what you’re smelling is limonene – it’s a hydrocarbon that has excellent jet fuel properties and recently outperformed traditional jet fuel in a model aircraft,” Mr Brennan said.

“We can take genes from oranges or lemons and assemble them in yeast, to turn them into tiny limonene factories, which eat sugar and spit out orange-flavoured jet fuels.”

A common limitation of this process is that too much limonene is toxic to yeast cells, and this limits how much fuel the yeast cells can produce before it kills them.

Mr Brennan and his colleagues have worked out how to help the yeast survive the toxic conditions to produce greater volumes of the fuel.

They’ve redesigned the bioreactor so that as soon as the yeast produces the fuel it immediately gets removed. This has allowed the same yeast to tolerate up to 700 times more fuel than they would in a traditional bioreactor.

The team are also altering the genes of the yeast to help it withstand higher volumes of limonene.

“By changing only a single gene, I can improve the cells’ resistance to the fuel, so it can stand to produce more of it, but finding that gene wasn’t easy. I had to use biology’s oldest tool, adaptive evolution, to help me get there,” said Mr Brennan.

Mr Brennan was also the People’s Choice and Runner-up for the UQ Final of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT)competition last year. 

“After my experience with FameLab Australia and 3MT, I have a much greater appreciation for public speaking. It’s an art and takes a lot of work and practice to convey a compelling story.”

Watch Mr Brennan’s Three-Minute Thesis video here.