Faculty Research Insight Talk #5

Faculty Research Insight Talk #5

Christine Salomon

Center for Drug Design
University of Minnesota

Applied natural products discovery and development

My research program is focused on harnessing the inspiration provided by chemical compounds made in nature. 

We are interested in the discovery of completely new molecular structures as well as developing applications for previously described compounds (and the microbes that produce them). Some of our recent projects have centered around developing and characterizing the chemistry of biological control microbes for disease treatments.

Mark Distefano

College of Science and Engineering
University of Minnesota

Protein prenylation, the anchor of life

Protein prenylation is a post-translational modification that consists of the attachment of 15 or 20 carbon isoprenoids near the C-termini of proteins.

In a eukaryotic cell, there are several hundred prenylated proteins including most members of the Ras superfamily and heterotrimeric G-proteins; the prenyl group serves to anchor these proteins in the membrane so that they are positioned to interact with cell surface receptors either directly or via adaptor proteins.

This means that essentially all signaling processes in eukaryotic cells require the participation of prenylated proteins for everything ranging from the regulation of cell division to stem cell differentiation and development. 

In this short presentation, I will describe our work in developing chemical probes to study this process in order to learn about the biology of prenylation, develop new inhibitors with therapeutic potential and use lipid modification for biotechnology applications.


Faculty Research Insight Talks #4

Faculty Research Insight Talks #4

Mike Travisano

Ecology and Environmental Biology
University of Minnesota

Microbial days of future passed

Mike Smanski

Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics
University of Minnesota

Lord of the ring-species

The students and post-docs in my lab work on a group of diverse and seemingly unrelated research and enginering projects.

In this short talk, I will attempt to link them all together in a cohesive way to highlight (i) what we are interested in and (ii) the at-times-serendipitous benefits of a broad research program.

I will talk about soil microbiomes, neuroprotective small molecules, gene drives, sustainable aviation fuel, and glowing carp.

I won’t talk about the weird smell coming out of Gortner 379 (and neither should you; still top secret). This will be a high-level talk, so please ask follow-up questions if you want to hear the details.


Faculty Research Insight Talks #3

Faculty Research Insight Talks #3

Burckhard Seelig

Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics
University of Minnesota

Imagine the time before there were proteins

The Seelig group investigates the emergence and early evolution of proteins at the origin of life. 

We apply high-through-put methods of selection and directed evolution to generate artificial proteins that nature has never seen before. Those proteins help us better understand how the first ever proteins could have appeared or how the genetic code may have evolved.

Besides studying these fundamental science questions, we are also interested in applying directed evolution to create enzymes as “designer catalysts” to harness the power of enzymes for the synthesis of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and for biomedical applications.

Bo Hu

Bioproduct & Biosystems Engineering
University of Minnesota

Process development for bioproducts generation & nutrients recycle from agricultural wastes

Nutrients, such as nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and sulfur (S), are vital components for fertilizers and animal feeds, while they are also the major pollutants from rural domestic wastewater and agricultural manure.

Improving utilization efficacy of these nutrients in animal feeds and recycle these nutrient pollutant from rural and agricultural wastes can minimize the environmental impacts of agricultural activities, alleviate the dependency on fossil fuels, and bring benefits to local communities.

Dr. Bo Hu will introduce his research at University of MInnesota related to this area, emphasizing on biomass utilization, industrial fermentation and agricultural waste management. His research group is currently working on projects to improve nutritional value of animal feeds via fungal fermentation, remove phosphorus, nitrogen and sulfur from agricultural waste and sewage sludge via different approaches, including microbial electro-chemical cells and re-design of anaerobic digestion. 

In this presentation, he will explain several case studies in the process development for nutrients removal and recycle.


Faculty Research Insight Talks #2

Faculty Research Insight Talks #2

Alptekin Aksan 

Mechanical engineering
University of Minnesota

Design & manufacturing of active biomaterials for biotechnology applications

My research focuses on two interwoven areas: bioencapsulation, and biopreservation. In biopreservation area, I focus on establishing the low-temperature and low-hydration physicochemical transitions of the solution environment on the stability of macromolecules and cells.

In bioencapsulation area, I focus on developing synthetic organic materials for a wide range of applications including bioremediation, biocatalysis, and self-healing materials.

Larry Wackett

Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics
University of Minnesota

Enzymes for PFAS, pesticides, phramaceuticals & pools

The Wackett lab focuses on unconventional enzymes and their real-world implementation. We have discovered the enzymes making b-lactones and biodegrading PFAS, prominent pharmaceutical pollutants, and a water disinfection chemical. I will talk about the biodegradative enzymes, one of which is now being produced at multi-ton scale.


Q&A with BTI Director Claudia Schmidt-Dannert

Q&A with BTI Director Claudia Schmidt-Dannert

Q&A with BTI Director Claudia Schmidt-Dannert

As the BioTechnology Institute’s new director, longtime faculty member Claudia Schmidt-Dannert aims to plant the institute firmly on the front lines of emerging needs and opportunities.

By Mary Hoff

Two decades ago, Claudia Schmidt-Dannert knew exactly where she wanted to be: at the frontlines of the intersection of biology and technology. And that meant joining the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s BioTechnology Institute. “BTI is actually one of the reasons I came to the University of Minnesota, because of this interaction between life sciences and engineering,” she says. “That’s very unique here.”

Named BTI director in January of this year, Schmidt-Dannert is working not only to strengthen interdisciplinary ties within the community as it recovers from disruptions due to the Covid pandemic, but also to firmly establish BTI’s position at the frontlines of biotechnology research and application during what could be the field’s most exciting times yet.

What do you hope to accomplish as director?

My focus is on keeping pace with biotechnology, really thinking about, “What are the next big things?” For example, biomanufacturing, biofabrication, new types of functional biomaterials for a range of applications—this is the future. We really must position ourselves very well in this space, make sure we are at the forefront of these types of efforts in biotechnology research, applied science, and development. We need to make sure we have the right people, resources and get people to collaborate across disciplines on these topics. We want to be spearheading new developments in biotechnology, looking at what biology can do to improve our future.

What strengths do you bring to the role?

I have a broad research background. I’m working both in fundamental areas of biotechnology but also in the engineering space, and my research spans from molecules to systems. I’m also very applied-minded. And I maybe bring a little bit more of a fresh perspective. We have a strong focus in bioremediation and environmental aspects of biotechnology. There are other and emerging focus areas in biootechnology that we should pay attention too and emphasize more. Also, I like collaboration and community-building. This is very important with a variety of stakeholders.

How important will BTI’s role in workforce training and strengthening Minnesota’s biotechnology be under your administration?

Most of our undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs will not follow an academic or medical career and instead many will seek out other employment in industry. There is high demand for skilled individuals from the biotechnology and biomanufacturing sector. We need to make sure that our students and postdocs are well prepared for these good-paying jobs. Over the past few years, BTI has collaborated with industrial partners on workforce development. I see this as an area that should be expanded. In addition, I feel strongly that meaningful biotechnology training should be incorporated at the undergraduate levels—where BTI can contribute. BTI also administers a small masters-level graduate program in microbial engineering that is aimed at students that want to go into industry. The student and postdoc-level workshop series as well as workshops offered through our NIH Biotechnology training program provide additional career relevant, professional skill sets.

Where do you see the big opportunities in the years ahead?

Biotechnology is very broad field, so there are many opportunities for different types of research. For example, synthetic biology is experiencing an influx of many new ideas in areas like materials sciences, sustainable biomanufacturing, artificial intelligence and computing. Addressing climate change, developing a circular bioeconomy, biomanufacturing and biofabrication—that’s where I see a lot of opportunities.

We also have very unique resources in Minnesota that go beyond our strong medical and agricultural industries. Northern Minnesota is rich in forests, water and minerals. My goal is to look at these resources as well as associated societal and environmental challenges associated with accessing these resources from a biotechnology perspective. I believe that there are many unique Minnesota-specific opportunities for biotechnology and bioeconomy development in our state.

What do you see as growth areas for the Institute?

I would like to continue building momentum and strength in synthetic biology. We have a research cluster in this area, but we have to further ramp up our expertise in this area. We are also lacking in certain cell-based manufacturing systems, especially for pharmaceuticals and biologics – we are not particularly strong in this area. Right now. we’re focused mostly on microbial systems with the new BRC [Biotechnology Resource Center] Microbial Cell Production Facility. But I also think mammalian cell cultures offer new opportunities for research. We need to bring in more young faculty with expertise in these areas.

Another goal is to build community, facilitate social interactions and provide more opportunities to exchange ideas among biotechnology research labs—crossing disciplines but also campuses. That was all put aside during Covid times, but it is very important. Without community, BTI is nothing but a collection of people. We’re going to have seminars followed by networking happy hours in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, not just by bringing in external speakers but having BTI labs give short talk to present their current research and where there research is headed. We are also reviving the graduate student and postdoc-led workshop series.

How will the Biotechnology Resource Center expansion benefit the University and for the state?

The new Microbial Cell Manufacturing Facility will have six times the pace of the current BRC, which will bring much needed capacity in microbial biomanufacturing to the University. Currently, the BRC is operating at capacity and even must turn down biomanufacturing projects and clients because of this. There is a huge demand for the types of the service the BRC offers in the preclinical space. The expanded BRC will therefore be able to serve much better the needs of UM researchers, industry, and academic partners. The “old BRC” offers opportunities for the development of new workforce training programs in biomanufacturing.

What are the big emerging societal needs that biotechnology can address, and how is BTI positioning to address them?

It is clear that we need to find drastically new ways of mitigating climate change, by developing new bio-based technologies for sustainable manufacturing, energy conversion, combating greenhouse gas emission or converting and sequestering carbon dioxide and for addressing environmental concerns. I see BTI as a catalyst and facilitator of research in these areas by bringing people together to tackle ambitious problems as teams with diverse cross-disciplinary skill sets.