BioTechnology Institute

The BioTechnology Institute is the central University of Minnesota vehicle for coordinated research in the biological, chemical, and engineering aspects of biotechnology. more >>

Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

The Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering was formed on July 1, 2006, from the merger of the former departments of “Bio-based Products” and “Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.” The department focus is on discovery, development and application of renewable resources and sustainable technologies to meet society’s needs while enhancing the environment in Minnesota and beyond. more >>

Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology
and Biophysics – Microbial Biochemistry and Biotechnology Division

The department has equally strong interests in understanding the molecular mechanisms of metabolic diseases and cancer, developing novel strategies in biocatalysis and biotechnology, and advancing knowledge through structural biology and molecular biophysics. more >>

Department of Chemistry

The Department of Chemistry has graduate faculty specializing in interdisciplinary areas of chemical biology that include: bioanalytical and biomaterials chemistry, computational chemistry, design and synthesis, enzyme chemistry, structure and spectroscopy, and nucleic acids. more >>

Department of Chemical Engineering
and Materials Science

The Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science has a graduate focus on biotechnology and bioengineering research. more >>

Department of Medicinal Chemistry

The College of Pharmacy has a Medicinal Chemistry department and graduate program that is one of the top-rated in the country. This department consists of a diverse group of faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral-fellows working at the interface of chemistry and biology and is home to the editorial office of the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. more >>

Grant Programs

Cyanuric Acid – Melamine Biocatalysis Project:
Fundamental Science and Business Opportunities

PIs: Lawrence Wackett, Michael Sadowsky, Steve Heilmann

Emphasis has evolved from swimming pool clean-up to food safety. Progress includes development of an enzyme-based kit to test foods. more >>

Novel Bioderived Polyesters

PIs: Friedrich Srienc, Romas Kazlauskas

Genetically engineered bacterial polymerases to produce new polymers with a range of properties including molecular weight, conductivity, stability and biodegradability.

Biocatalytic Azide Incorporation
for Proteomics and Protein Labeling

PIs: Mark Distefano, Wei-Shou Hu, Claudia Schmidt-Dannert

Have shown that certain protein substrates can be labeled with azide in vivo using a mutant enzyme. Work continues to broaden the substrate by modifying the enzyme, and a high throughput assay has been developed to test the various substrates and mutant enzymes.

Hydrothermal Carbonization of Algae
and Application of “Synthetic Coal”

PIs: Kenneth Valentas, Marc von Keitz, Fred Schendel, Paul Lefebvre, Steve Heilmann

Treatment of algae at high temperature and pressure to create a synthetic coal-like product and a byproduct with potential for use as a fertilizer. more >>

Cloning and Characterization of an
Oat2 Transporter from Humans

PIs: Robert Brooker

The human Oat 2 gene (organic anion transporter) has been cloned and expressed in yeast.

Engineering Proteins and Cellular Biocatalysts for
Electrode Binding via High Throughput in vitro Selection

PIs: Burckhard Seelig, Jeffrey Gralnick, Daniel Bond

An E. Coli gene permitting E. Coli to bind to gold surfaces has been cloned and will be tested in another bacterium.

Diverting Fatty Acid Metabolism
to Make Liquid Fuels

PIs: Romas Kazlauskas, Lawrence Wackett

Have succeeded in mimicking the production of beta-keto thioesters of CoA by enzymatically producing N-acetyl cysteamine thioester with the goal of finding a late intermediate in the synthesis of long chain fatty acids and converting it to a long chain combustible product.

High Intensity Enzymatic Biocatalysis for
Direct Conversion of Solar Energy into Chemical Fuels

PIs: Ping Wang, William Tze

An explorative study of cofactor regeneration via solar power driven water electrolysis.

Engineered “Platelets” Linking Microbial
Electrochemistry to Redox Enzymes

PIs: Daniel Bond, Stephen Campbell

One enzyme has been purified and tested for binding potential.

Engineering a Designer Cellulolytic
Ethanol-Producing Microorganism

PIs: Wei-Shou Hu, Prodromos Daoutidis, Yiannis Kaznessis

Have discovered an anaerobe that can degrade cellulose and produce ethanol.

Renewable Petroleum

U of M researchers close in on technology for making renewable “petroleum” using bacteria, sunlight and carbon dioxide.

University of Minnesota researchers are a key step closer to making renewable petroleum fuels using bacteria, sunlight and carbon dioxide, a goal funded by a $2.2 million United States Department of Energy grant.

Read the full article on the University of Minnesota’s Discover Blog


Protein Microcompartments Open New Possibilities in Biocatalytic Engineering

After observing protein compartments in certain bacteria that could isolate enzyme reactions, a team of University researchers worked to reproduce these reaction-containing microcompartments in a non-native host organism. Their goal was to create small bioreactors – nanobioreactors – within cells where specific enzyme actions could be targeted. The group, guided by BTI faculty member Claudia Schmidt-Dannert and post-doctoral researcher Swati Choudhary, recently succeeded in producing these protein microcompartments in non-native E. coli bacteria from the microcompartment shell proteins of the bacteria Salmonella enterica.

A bacterial microcompartment (BMC) is a polyhedral protein complex that acts as a kind of box or room within a cell where enzymes can react more efficiently. The BMC can contain enzymes involved in specific metabolic pathway reactions while also preventing toxic byproducts of the reactions from harming the host cell. BMCs were first observed by microscope in cyanobacteria in the 1950’s. Since then, it has become clear that these protein structures are produced by many types of bacteria for various functions.

“Bacterial microcompartment proteins have been identified in over 400 bacterial genomes,” explained Choudhary, “and they are associated with diverse metabolic pathways such as fixing CO2 and utilizing small organic compounds as sources of carbon and nitrogen.”

Interest in BMCs and their natural functions has grown in recent years. With more information on their properties now available, BMCs are becoming more practical for applications in synthetic biology.

The team of University researchers working to harness the potential of BMC’s as nanobioreactors was able to identify the proteins forming the outer shell and use these proteins to reproduce the compartments in non-native host bacteria. The results of the group’s project have potentially valuable applications beyond simply reproducing the microcompartment structure. Being able to create these reaction compartments in a variety of hosts will improve and streamline biocatalytic processes.

-Tim Montgomery

Wackett research team wins $2.2 million stimulus grant to explore production of hydrocarbons using bacteria

By Tim Montgomery

April 29, 2010 

The U.S. Department of Energy has selected 37 projects for major federal stimulus funding through their Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) venue to pursue breakthrough energy research. BioTechnology Institute faculty member Larry Wackett is lead investigator for a University of Minnesota team which will receive $2.2 million in funding to explore production of liquid hydrocarbon transportation fuels directly from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide using bacteria.

Liquid hydrocarbons extracted from sedimentary rock are the basis of current petroleum fuels. They are a principal source of energy after refining and combustion, and society is heavily invested in the infrastructure necessary for their production, transport and use. But fossil hydrocarbon fuels like coal and petroleum add carbon to the atmosphere when burned, contributing to ozone depletion and climate warming through increased greenhouse gases.

The team of University researchers proposes to create clean-burning liquid hydrocarbon fuels from renewable biological sources – in this case, two different types of bacteria cultured together.

“The idea is to make more hydrocarbons through biological processes,” explained Wackett. “The processes would be continual and not involve the use of heat energy or the interruption of starting over with new cultures as in the fermentation of ethanol.”

The idea for a “biohydrocarbon” project came about from a collaborative effort between the Wackett Lab and the lab of Jeffrey Gralnick which identified genes involved in the production of a very large hydrocarbon. Working with the Shewanella bacterium, Dave Sukovich, a Ph.D. student in the Wackett lab, discovered a way to significantly broaden the products of this pathway – going from one specific long-chain hydrocarbon to a diverse range of hydrocarbons, reminiscent of an actual fuel profile.

“Shewanella bacteria will be the platform that we develop into a biohydrocarbon production system,” commented Gralnick, who was particularly excited about the novel way in which ‘food’ would be provided for Shewanella to use in making hydrocarbons.”

Working in partnership with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), University researchers will use a photosynthetic bacteria developed by PNNL that can convert light and carbon dioxide to “feed” the hydrocarbon-producing Shewanella bacteria being altered at the BioTechnology Institute for scaled-up production. A latex biofilm developed by former BioTechnology Institute faculty member Michael Flickinger and the late L. E. (Skip) Scriven, an Institute of Technology professor, and produced by university start-up BioCee Inc. will provide the environment for growth of the bacteria. University specialists in chemical engineering will work on “cracking” the thick hydrocarbon output to produce fuel. The availability and contribution of specialists and materials located in close proximity at the University was one of the factors that enhanced the proposal, according to Wackett.

“The view of the people at ARPA-E was that instead of using different yeasts in fermentation, they wanted to hear more proposals that had potential to change the industry,” concluded Wackett. “This is a high-risk, high-reward venture.”

Click here to read the announcement on the DOE ARPA-E website.

Click here to read the University of Minnesota press release. 

Click here to read the NY Times article.

Click here to read a related article about BioCee in the Star Tribune.

Click here to hear Larry Wackett on NPR’s Living on Earth.