A Focus on our PhD Students – Magdalena Ripoll

From a very young age, I found biology and chemistry were my favorite subjects. However, when it came to deciding what to study after high school, it was not the easiest decision. So many careers related to those subjects, all interesting but all so different. One day, I came across an advertisement about a new degree in Biotechnology offered by Universidad ORT Uruguay. It instantly caught my attention, since it combined both biology and chemistry, allowing for the development of new and environmentally friendly technologies. I decided to enroll, and so it began my journey as a scientist.

During my studies, I became really interested in residue valorization using microorganisms, so in 2016 I joined Professor Lorena Betancor’s group as an undergraduate student. Her group is dedicated to studying the development of immobilized biological catalysts for their implementation at an industrial level to obtain value-added products. My undergraduate thesis was focused on the biotransformation of crude glycerol, a by-product of the biofuel industry, into the value-added products dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and glyceric acid (GA) using Gluconobacter free resting cells. These products are important intermediaries in the synthesis of chemical compounds of industrial value, such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals and cosmetics.

During my Master degree, which I finished in 2020, I continued my work in glycerol biotransformations but using immobilized biocatalysts. That’s when I started working with alginate, a very well-known sol-gel matrix, to immobilize bacteria of the Gluconobacter genus. Through immobilization within this hydrogel, we were able to achieve cleaner biotransformations and enable an easier downstream processing. During this time, I was able to participate in many international conferences and participate in a research stay at the ISQCH, University of Zaragoza, Spain. These experiences proved really enriching as I met a lot of interesting people and learnt a lot more about the field of biotransformations.

Currently, I’m a 2nd year PhD student, again under the supervision of Professor Lorena Betancor (Universidad ORT Uruguay) and Dr Leonardo Ríos-Solís (University of Edinburgh), whose laboratory I visited for three months at the beginning of 2022. My work is now focused on combining the development of new hybrid materials for bacterial immobilization with the genetic modification of Gluconobacter strains to obtain novel biocatalysts for glycerol valorization. By combining alginate gels with clays and silica nanoparticles, we are trying to obtain materials with improved strength and durability. Concurrently, we are working alongside the Ríos-Solís group to obtain Gluconobacter mutants with an improved glyceric acid production.