Future PAcMEN will hunt for bio-fuels and bio-chemicals

Wednesday 21 Sep 16


Anne Wärme Lykke
Communications Officer
DTU Biosustain
+45 21 12 37 70

Even though the name implies it, the PAcMEN program has nothing to do with hungry cheeses hunting for ghosts. Instead, the PAcMEN-program – which has now been granted nearly 4 million Euro – will train young researchers in developing new cell factories faster and cheaper.

16 new PAcMEN PhD studens will soon crop up in the hallways of leading European universities.

“The PAcMEN PhD students that we will train, will hunt for solutions – not ghosts,” says Scientific Director Professor Jens Nielsen from The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, DTU Biosustain, at Technical University of Denmark, who is heading the program.

“In order to develop cell factories faster and cheaper, we need researchers with interdisciplinary scientific training and with insight into the industrial biotechnology processes and business,” he says.

PAcMEN is short for Predictive and Accelerated Metabolic Engineering Network. The program will train 16 PhD’s in different areas of biotechnology – both in hands-on lab work and in advanced computational methods, which enable the researchers to predict the outcome of different genetic modifications.

Reducing the cost is essential

A cell factory is a microscopic cell; which metabolism has been engineered to produce a given bio-chemical or bio-pharmaceutical.

"In order to develop cell factories faster and cheaper, we need researchers with interdisciplinary scientific training and with insight into the industrial biotechnology processes and business"
Jens Nielsen, Scientific Director at DTU Biosustain

Today’s cell factories are very expensive to develop, though, and often cost over $50 million from idea to final strain – an investment that is difficult to finance and recover. This needs to change, and this is the aim of the PAcMEN program, says Jens Nielsen.

“A shift towards bio-based production of chemicals and fuels is essential, if we want to reduce our dependency on oil for chemical synthesis or our dependency on rare plants for extraction of scarce pharmaceutical drugs. In this quest, the main challenge is to develop novel cell factories quicker, and hence cheaper, than today,” he says.

Therefore, EU has funded this initiative with nearly 4 Million Euro through its Horizon2020 Innovative Training Networks grant program.

A close partnership between academia and business

The 16 PhD’s will be trained at top universities in Europe and collaborating closely with the industry.

Hence, the graduates will be trained both in the areas of research, business, and entrepreneurship to eventually become leaders in small and large private companies or academia.

All the PAcMEN PhD’s will work with yeast, which is widely used by the industry. Today, engineered yeast can already produce various chemicals and molecules used in pharmaceuticals, food, plastics and fuels.


Examples of some high-value molecules are the food sweetener xylitol, the natural flavour vanillin or anti-malarial medicine artemisinin – molecules that, to a large extend, are extracted from rare plants today. Examples of large-volume chemicals and biofuels are lactic acid for biodegradable polymers, bioethanol or isobutanol and plastics.


Therefore, engineering yeast cells into producing high yields of these chemicals will benefit both the consumer and the environment.


Cells will be ready for modern bio-refineries

The PhD’s will focus on different steps of the design-build-test approach to cell factory construction.


Some of them will create predictive genome-scale metabolic models. Others will work on engineering parts and enzymes. Finally, some will be building robust yeast cell factories for bio-refinery applications, which can be exploited by the industrial project partners. These strains will be suitable for 2nd generation bio-refineries, i.e. refineries that are capable of converting waste streams into chemicals.

So in three years’ time, 16 experts in quick and efficient cell design will start hatching from the PAcMEN network.

About PAcMEN

  • Predictive & Accelerated Metabolic Engineering Network (PAcMEN) is a European PhD programme, which offers excellent training in biotech research and innovation for 16 talented young scientists.
  • PhD students will carry out cutting-edge research in metabolic engineering, modeling, molecular-, systems, and synthetic biology.
  • The following universities are involved in the programme: Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Chalmers University in Sweden, École Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, and RWTH Aachen University in Germany.
  • Two high-tech companies SilicoLife (Portugal) and SeSaM-Biotech (Germany) is also part of the training network, which also includes other industrial partners: Dong Energy (Denmark), Borregaard (Norway), Evolva (Switzerland), Teselagen (USA), Royal DSM (The Netherlands), and Joint Bioenergy Institute (USA).
  • In collaboration with industrial partners, they will create novel solutions for sustainable production of fuels and chemicals. The PhD students will be prepared through research, business, and entrepreneurship training to launch their careers in industry or academia.
  • As part of the network, the PhD students will participate in annual network conferences and training events in Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. 
  • Furthermore, they will participate in the network-organized courses on metabolic modelling, protein engineering, scientific writing, BioBusiness and Innovation, and entrepreneurship, and will be assigned an industrial mentor. The program includes a secondment with a company partner for 3-6 months.
  • The PhD students will work closely with industrial partners of the network and will be assigned an industrial mentor. The program includes a secondment with a company partner for a period of 3-6 months.
  • Please look out for vacancies, since the project leaders are now on the outlook for 16 ambitious, talented PhD students for the network.