BTI members connect with colleagues in Japan

BioTechnology Institute members travel to the University of Tokyo to strengthen research ties.

By Lance Janssen

Despite hours-long flights and an ocean of separation, researchers from the BioTechnology Institute (BTI) and the University of Tokyo have close connections. This past November, eight BTI faculty members traveled to Japan for a shared research symposium as a continued piece of an academic exchange program launched between the two institutions in 2017. With common research focus areas in areas like ​​microbial engineering, synthetic biology, protein design and environmental engineering, as well as opportunities to build connections and train students, the initiative aims to offer opportunities that will advance research and educational efforts for both BTI and the University of Tokyo.

“Our hope is that we can build collaborations with researchers that have shared interest areas and complementary scientific skills and expertise,” says Jeff Gralnick, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and a BTI member. “By establishing a student and postdoc exchange program, we also hope to provide important learning experiences for our trainees.”

Gralnick attended this year’s symposium along with Alptekin Aksan from the College of Science and Engineering, Christine Salomon from the College of Pharmacy and Medical School, as well as Michael Freeman, Kate Adamala, Michael Travisano and Claudia Schmidt-Dannert from the College of Biological Sciences. The symposium not only offered researchers the chance to share some of their research endeavors in Minnesota, but also build closer connections with their Tokyo counterparts. 

“The University of Tokyo is the premier research institution in Japan – with excellent research groups that conduct complementary research to BTI faculty,” says Schmidt-Dannert, head of BTI and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics. “Through this symposium we were able to learn first-hand about specific research conducted at the University of Tokyo through lectures, visits to labs and meetings with students, researchers and faculty – both in a formal but also more informal setting – and get insights into the academic environment and culture in Japan.”

Over the course of their visit, the BTI team took part in the symposium, as well as tours to the Mt. Fuji area, a formal banquet with colleagues and a visit to the National Institute of Genetics. These experiences offered researchers the chance to not only learn about research and visit a new city, but also future research opportunities for years to come.

“I think all of us identified areas of overlap for research collaboration,” says Schmidt-Dannert. “Some concrete connections have already been made that will result in material exchange and hosting of students and postdocs. We will use all of the knowledge and experience gathered to identify and apply for joint funding opportunities and develop a program that will allow for an exchange of graduate students and potentially postdocs between BTI and University of Tokyo labs.” 

Symposium presentations

Structural and metabolic insights in RiPP peptide backbone α-N- methylation.
Michael Freeman (University of Minnesota)

Natural product discovery for biocontrol and infectious disease treatment.
Christine Salomon (University of Minnesota)

Molecular Plant-Microbe interactions along the parasitic-mutualistic continuum.
Ke Hirumai (University of Tokyo)

Life but not alive: bioengineering with synthetic cells.
Kate Adamala (University of Minnesota)

Leveraging biological self-organization for the design of functional materials.
Claudia Schmidt-Dannert (University of Minnesota)

Molecular mechanisms of morphological development in the rare actinomycete Actinoplanes missouriensis.
Yasuo Ohnishi (University of Tokyo)

Extracellular electron transfer in Bacteria.
Jeffrey Gralnick (University of Minnesota)

Bioremediation of nitrate pollution in agricultural subsurface drainage.
Satoshi Ishii (University of Minnesota)

Plasmid business: effects to host cell physiology and fate in nature.
Hideaki Nojiri (University of Tokyo)

Active biomaterials for biotechnology applications.
Alptekin Aksan AKSAN (University of Minnesota)

Exploring microbial solutions using Experimental Evolution.
Michael Travisano (University of Minnesota)

Bioinformatics for revealing rules behind microbial genome evolution.
Wataru Iwasaki (University of Tokyo)