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2023. 03. 24 -

Green chemistry expert Dr. A. Baradokė: bringing natural phenomena into the laboratory

Bacteria, yeasts and algae are microorganisms that probably need no introduction. We have all encountered them in one way or another. But some scientists are particularly interested in them. Why? Because they become "tools" for developing new technologies!
One such specialist is Dr. Aušra Baradokė, PhD in Chemistry, Senior Researcher in the Department of Nanotechnology of the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology (FTMC). She is currently working on electrochemistry experiments and says she and her team are doing unique things.
Her group, called BaRaDoKe, applies the principles of green chemistry – e.g. conducting research that is environmentally friendly and sustainable. And that's what microorganisms are good for.
Dr. Baradokė returned to Lithuania after five years of working abroad, taking part in prestigious research groups in nanoparticle synthesis, biosensors, imaging, and a fellowship at the University of Oxford. Her current research focuses on electrochemical systems for disease diagnostics, drug discovery, green energy and sustainable chemical raw materials; in Oxford, she and her colleagues have been working on electronic devices for detecting infectious diseases, which are also applicable to the study of how drugs enter our bodies and to the study of the chemical processes occurring in microorganisms. These devices are also suitable for energy storage.
(A biosensor developed by Dr. Aušra Baradokė and her team. Photo: Dr. A. Baradokė)
"In the case of an infection, there is normally an increase in protein (antibodies to antigens) in the body, which is indicated by certain infectious symptoms (like pain, fever or fatigue). Today, sensors for detecting excess proteins using discolouration techniques are sold in pharmacies, but electrochemical sensors for infectious diseases are still in the development phase. The design of electronic devices is being improved, and problems of sensitivity and specificity are being addressed," says Dr. Aušra Baradokė.
After receiving support from the European Structural and Investment Funds and the Marius Jakulis Jason Foundation, she is continuing her research at FTMC. The scientist collaborates with undergraduate, postgraduate, doctoral and postdoctoral researchers (in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics) in Lithuania (FTMC and the Vilnius University Life Sciences Center, Faculty of Chemistry and Geosciences, UAB Delta biosciences) and abroad - at the University of Dublin (or Trinity the College), Dublin City University (DCU) and the University of Oxford.
She also hosts trainees from the Baltic States and is currently leading a multidisciplinary team (biologists, engineers, sustainability, finance and marketing specialists) from France. From autumn this year, she plans to supervise PhD students coming from Irish and UK universities.
Dr. Baradokė's research with colleagues in Lithuania and abroad has been published in high impact factor (7-60) journals published by the American Chemical Society, Elsevier in the Netherlands and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK.
What is the research she is doing?
(Experiments with microorganisms. Photo: Dr. Aušra Baradokė)
Bacteria contribute to a greener future
I walk into the laboratory where a continuous experiment (up to at least two weeks) is being carried out, and which Aušra says is the one she is most "excited about" today.
On the table are two so-called chambers - glass cylinders. The right one contains bacteria called rhizobium. These normally live in nature by attaching themselves to the roots of leguminous plants, where they develop nodules in which the bacteria take up residence. Rhizobium takes up nitrogen from the air, produces ammonia and "cohabits" with the plant itself. A kind of exchange takes place: the bacteria provide the plant with food and the plant "pays it back".
 But what do these bacteria do here in the laboratory?
"Our project aims to produce alternative, environmentally friendly raw materials for fertilizer, energy and health. In this case, it is ammonia. Rhizobium takes nitrogen, "recycles" it and converts it into ammonia. What do we do? We are trying to extract a higher efficiency of ammonia production from this natural phenomena," says Dr. Baradokė.
This is done using electrochemistry: nitrogen gas is fed to the bacteria in the cylinder through tubes 24 hours a day and a low voltage is applied to the system via an electrode, which stimulates rhizobium to produce more of the ammonia it needs. "By getting more electrons, the bacterium is more 'motivated' to produce ammonia," explains the scientist.
(Experiments with microorganisms. Photo: Dr. Aušra Baradokė)
During the experiment, the ammonia content is determined by chemical analysis and the viability of the bacteria is assessed. This allows the efficiency of the system to be evaluated, which today is more than 20%. Efficiency can be improved by changing the parameters of the system and the test object (e.g. by introducing a different type of microorganism, such as bacteria or algae).
According to Dr. Aušra, this research is promising as it could pave the way for the production of new environmentally friendly fertilizers, as well as raw materials for fuel or medical applications. The advances could also be useful for hydrogen production - hopes are still high that in the near future hydrogen will become an excellent material for car fuels, heating buildings, generating electricity, etc., as hydrogen produces only water when it burns.
But how to produce hydrogen itself in an environmentally friendly way? Ironically, the production of hydrogen to date has been very polluting, with burning vast amounts of fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide at twice the rate of the UK per year.
So microorganisms can contribute to huge changes.
The results of Dr. Baradokė's experiments will be taken over by the FTMC's Innovation and Technology Office, which will look for other partners and ways to continue the work. "The motivation of our research team is to continue to collaborate with business after the research has been completed and published, ensuring continuity," she says.
The research team has developed sensors to detect ammonia so that they know more accurately from small volumes how much the bacteria have produced: "Because current analytical chemistry methods require volumes up to 10 times larger. In our case, 100 microlitres (0.1 millilitres) is enough for this sensor. This speeds up the whole process."
(Experiments with microorganisms. Photo: Dr. Aušra Baradokė)
Microorganisms for biofuel cells production
Today, Dr. Aušra Baradokė is "employing" a variety of microorganisms in three different areas: developing biosensors, producing chemical raw materials using natural processes (as in the case of the bacterium rhizobium) and working with cells that store electricity. The latter is discussed below.
One of the projects Aušra is leading involves converting solar energy into hydrogen. This requires a lot of electricity, so they are trying to integrate alternative energy sources into this process. Catalysts are also needed - substances that speed up the rate of a chemical reaction.
"Today, they use inorganic catalysts, nanoparticles. Where my focus is and where I see the vision is to use biocatalysts. These could be living microorganisms such as algae, perhaps yeast or bacteria," she says.
Another project by Dr. Aušra and her PhD students is also noteworthy. The team is working on techniques to use electrochemistry to identify the processes taking place in a microorganism. For example, there is a technique called electroporation, where an electric field "imprints" molecules on a cell:
"We take a microorganism, expose it to an electric current, and then a nanocell is 'punctured'. But it is very difficult to be sure that this has happened: special tags, glowing 'dyes' and microscopy are used.
So my team and I have developed a technique to see what's going on there. When a hole is 'punched', ions from a microscopic particle come out of the cell - and these can be identified using biosensors we have developed. We hope this will have breakthroughs in science and commerce - for example in genetic engineering, for improving energy storage, for new biosensors... The applications are broad."
(Dr. Aušra Baradokė with her team - young scientists from France. Photo: Dr. A. Baradokė)
From a small town to the international stage
Aušra comes from Pilviškiai, a small town of 2,500 inhabitants in the Vilkaviškis region. The future scientist was inspired by Daiva Kukienė, a physics teacher at Santaka Gymnasium, also Birutė Lėnertaitė, a mathematics teacher, and Lina Šulinskaitė, a chemistry teacher. "I would also like to thank the current Director of the school, Danuta Valiūnienė, who is doing her best to educate the younger generation," says A. Baradokė.
"The teacher is very important here. I have heard from colleagues in other fields that mathematics or physics was a challenge for them and required a lot of effort. I remember that in my school, teachers used to be very creative, imaginative and present these subjects with examples from nature. When I ask my current students what motivated them to take up physical sciences, I hear that it was a good relationship with their teachers," she recalls.
She had been successful in physics, chemistry and mathematics Olympiads, but when she left school, she had a dilemma - where to go? In the end, things turned out very interesting: Aušra started studying physics, wrote her PhD thesis on chemistry, and nowadays her work is strongly linked to biology.
While studying for her PhD at the FTMC, she began a continuous internship abroad in England and Ireland. "I have been lucky to work with talented people, to see an example and to be able to bring it here. So I am most happy that I had the chance to gain invaluable experience and return to build Lithuania," says Dr Aušra. Why did she return? As she says herself, out of love for Lithuania.
This included the opportunity to apply for the Marius Jakulis Jason Foundation Scholarship. The aim of this initiative by the lawyer and investor is to provide financial support to talented entrepreneurs, academics and students who can and do contribute to the growth of the Lithuanian economy.
"When I found out that I was among the winners, it was very motivating. Thanks to the scholarship, I am able to create research groups and develop scientific topics that are not available in Lithuania. I have a lot of ideas that I will try to transfer to our country, but we need laboratories and special equipment. That is why I am still collaborating with foreign universities," she says.
At the end of March, she will travel to the University of Cambridge to take part in the Photo-Bioelectrochemistry Conference, a workshop that brings together scientists from all over the world. They will discuss scientific ideas and write joint applications for winning projects.
Aušra Baradokė spent five years abroad, returned to Lithuania with her family in 2021, and continues to do research at the FTMC: "In my opinion, I have chosen a very good place, and I'm happy to be back. There are many multidisciplinary research groups here that are open to scientific discussion, we have modern laboratories - everything is in place and people are willing to collaborate.
I am very grateful to Prof. Gintaras Valušis, Director of the FTMC, and other colleagues for all the help and support they have given me in settling in."
Written by Simonas Bendžius