Professor Ben Hankamer

Institute for Molecular Biosciences
The University of Queensland, Australia
Phone: +61 7 334 62012
Fax: +61 334 62101
Email: b.hankamer@imb.uq.edu.au

Ben Hankamer

About Ben

Research Focus

Microalgae have many advantages for bio-fuel production. My group uses a broad spectrum of approaches, including the development of industrial feasibility studies, structural and molecular biology to harness these for a range of high efficiency bio-fuel production systems.

The main focus of my research is the structural biology of photosynthetic machinery and its enhancement for high efficiency bio-fuel production. To solve the 3D structures of these and other membrane proteins and macromolecular assemblies my group is developing new technologies for protein structure determination.

  1. High-resolution Single Particle Analysis (SPA) pipeline: My group has built a powerful high-resolution SPA pipeline which is ideally suited for the rapid determination of the structures of membrane protein complexes and macromolecular assemblies which are being studied to improve the efficiency of bio-fuel production.
  2. Systematic 2D crystal production systems: My group is also actively developing a new template assisted crystallization system, in which tagged membrane proteins are tethered to a detergent resistant and fluid monolayer before being aligned into 2D crystals.

Using such systems, I have worked extensively on the structures of membrane protein complexes including PSII monomers, PSII dimers and a range of PSI-LHCI and PSII-LHCII supercomplexes and a related ATPase, using cryo-electronmicroscopy, single particle analysis, electron and X-ray crystallography This work has been published in journals such as Nature, Nature Structural Biology, PNAS and TIBS.

Key Projects

Industrial Feasibility studies: Detailed Industrial feasibility studies are being developed for Bio-H2, bio-diesel, bio-methane and BTL production processes. These provide valuable insights into the economics of bio-fuel production, and define which aspects of each process, must be optimised to expedite commercial viability.

Antenna engineering: Photosynthesis is essential for the production of all the major bio-fuels as it drives the first step in the conversion of light to chemical energy, and so produces the substrates for fuel synthesis. Typically photosynthetic organisms have a photon conversion efficiency of ~1-2%. These low efficiencies are largely due to the fact that they use photo-protective mechanisms which dissipate excess energy (up to 95% of captured photons) at natural light levels. Most of this energy is dissipated in the light harvesting antenna systems. Significantly, in green algae it has been estimated that photosynthetic efficiency can be increased towards 10% by reducing the size of these antenna systems. A range of antenna mutants are under construction to determine which yield the highest levels of photosynthetic efficiency.

The Visible Cell project: The aim of this project is to develop the molecular 3D atlas of the chloroplast. This 3D atlas will provide the blueprint to guide fine tuning the photosynthetic machinery through genetic engineering, just as a car manual provides an engine plan to facilitate its tuning. Such an atlas will enable us to model interaction of photosystems within & between thylakoid membranes & the biophysical modelling of light excitation energy transfer at the molecular level, dependant on these arrangements.

Bio-H2: Together with Olaf Kruse we have developed a high hydrogen producing strain of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, Stm6. Stm6 exhibits one of the highest reported rates of solar powered bio-H2 production (Kruse & Hankamer patent WO2005003024). A sugar transporter as subsequently engineered into Stm6 to facilitate the simultaneous conversion of sugar and water to H2 and has resulted in a further 50% increase in H2 production.