Enzyme advances promise to boost the bioeconomy

Enzyme advances promise to boost the bioeconomy

Enzyme advances promise to boost the bioeconomy

Enzyme technology symposium brings together researchers from North America and Japan working on cutting-edge applications.

By Stephanie Xenos

Around 85 researchers and industry partners involved in developing new enzyme-based applications recently came together at the University of Minnesota for the 1st North America-Japan Enzyme Technology Symposium. The symposium, organized by the BioTechnology Institute and Amano Enzyme Japan, focused on enzyme technology relating to biocatalysis and food, two key areas of the growing bioeconomy. 

“This symposium provided opportunities for new collaborations and learning about new enzyme applications that are particularly relevant for advancing the bioeconomy in Minnesota given the abundant agricultural and forest resources in our state,” says Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, director of the BioTechnology Institute.

Speakers covered a range of topics including modifications in the rate at which plants absorb light, in wood xylan to make polymers for food packaging, and in polyunsaturated fatty acids to make therapeutics.

“Enzyme applications make our lives better and our environment cleaner but most people are unaware of their importance since they work for us out of sight,” says Romas Kazlauskas, a professor in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, and one of the organizers of the symposium. “Enzymes make our laundry detergents more effective, are used to make the COVID-19 drug Paxlovid, and improve the texture and taste of our foods. This symposium provided examples of current and future applications of enzymes.”

The symposium provided students and postdocs to engage with experts from industry and academia, and learn about the breadth of enzyme applications.

A selection of symposium talks are available to view.

Faculty Research Insight Talks #6

Faculty Research Insight Talks #6

Claudia Schmidt-Dannert

Director of the Biotechnology Institute; Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophyscs
University of Minnesota

Building materials using biology

In biological systems, proteins, nucleic acids and lipids are precisely organized to form higher ordered structures across multiple length scales. Likewise, cells organize themselves into complex structures such as in biofilms. 

Harnessing the principles and mechanisms underlying the assembly and organization of natural living systems and materials therefore offers tremendous opportunities for the design and scalable fabrication of functional biomaterials with emergent properties, including remodeling, self-repair and healing. 

Our laboratory is exploring the design of self-assembling systems for a variety of applications. In one area of research, we are designing protein-based materials as platforms for biocatalysis and as funcitonal materials. Another area of research involves building materials with cells, including the design of living materials and most recently, functional biofilms. 

In this presentation I will present examples of our current and future work in this area.

Brett Barney

Bioproduct & Biosystems Engineering
University of Minnesota

Enhancing biological nitrogen fixation for sustainable agriculture

The Haber-Bosch process is a chemical engineering marvel that enabled the green revolution and supports about 50 percent of global food production through production of ammonia fertilizers.

Biological nitrogen fixation has been around for quite a bit longer, and has the potential to be harnessed to do more.

Our laboratory has been altering nitrogen-fixing microbes to generate improved biofertilizers. We recently shifted our efforts to replicate our work in endophyte microbes and better understand the mechanisms enabling certain plant growth promoting microbes to grow within the confines of plants. 

I will present a brief overview of the work going on related to this task.


Reception to follow

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.