Making a Better Hydrogen Producing Bacterium

A microbe able to produce hydrogen without typical poisoning by oxygen production.

Image courtesy of Washington University, St. Louis
The single-celled marine cyanobacterium Cyanothece 51142, captured by a light microscope.

The Science

Scientists at the Pacific National Northwest Laboratory now have shown for the first time that a single celled cyanobacterium, Cyanothece, is able to produce hydrogen and oxygen simultaneously without interruption for at least one hundred hours.

The Impact

Improved understanding of cyanobacterial physiology will help move forward the biotechnology of microbial hydrogen production.


One challenge to the commercialization of microbial production of hydrogen using sunlight is that the oxygen produced by photosynthesis decreases hydrogen production. Various biological mechanisms have evolved to separate the two reactions and scientists have been looking for engineering solutions, but the challenge is not yet solved. The bacteria produce hydrogen at relatively high rates without high cell density or inducing circadian rhythms, as required in studies by other researchers. Furthermore, there is little photo-damage and decay of the photosynthesis apparatus, perhaps enabled by the removal of excess electrons by the hydrogen production.


Dr. Alexander Beliaev
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


DOE Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program


Melnicki MR, et al. “Sustained H2 production driven by photosynthetic water splitting in a unicellular cyanobacterium.” mBio 3 e00197-12 (2012). [DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00197-12].

Highlight Categories

Program: BER , BSSD

Performer: DOE Laboratory