BTI Faculty Members Dan Knights and Kechun Zhang Named 2015-2017 McKnight Land-Grant Professors

Please join us in congratulating Assistant Professors Dan Knights and Kechun Zhang, who were among the eight recipients of the 2015-2017 McKnight Land-Grant Professorship. The award is designed to advance the careers of promising junior faculty members who demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions to their departments and disciplines.

Dan Knights (BTI/Computer Science & Engineering)
Trillions of bacteria live in our guts, protecting us from infection and aiding our digestion. An imbalance of these bacteria, called dysbiosis, may contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer, Crohn’s, and many other diseases, yet each person’s bacterial diversity is so distinct that we cannot easily identify when a microbiome is “unhealthy.” In his research, Dan combines expertise in data mining and biology to advance detection and treatment of dysbiosis in obesity and autoimmune diseases.

Kechun Zhang (BTI/Chemical Engineering & Materials Science)
Transforming traditional chemical production into a green and sustainable future is a great challenge facing human society. The current biorefinery process utilizes food resources and is limited by the metabolic capability of natural microorganisms. To enhance the viability of biomanufacturing, Kechun is engineering a new metabolic pathway in industrial yeast for more efficient fermentation of value-added chemicals from lignocellulosic feedstocks such as corn stover, sugar beet pulp, and citrus peel.

BTI’s Kechun Zhang recognized as an Early Innovator at the University of Minnesota’s Innovation awards.

Kechun Zhang (BTI, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science) was recognized on December 11th as an Early Innovator for his work developing a scalable, biodegradable, sugar-based rubber. A potential substitute for petroleum-based products, the biosynthetic rubber could appear in a variety of products, from grocery bags to bathtub toys. The Early Innovator award recognizes nontenured faculty or researchers who are actively engaged in developing new technologies and moving them to market.

Made in Minnesota: Celebrating University Innovators

The following BTI members were also recognized for patents and/or licenses awarded over the past three years: Alptekin Aksan, Wei-Shou Hu, Alexander Khoruts, Michael Sadowsky, Friedrich Srienc, Lawrence Wackett, Ping Wang and Kechun Zhang.

Mike Smanksi joins the BioTechnology Institute as assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics.

Mike Smanski joins the University of Minnesota from MIT, where he developed new strategies for engineering multi-gene systems as an HHMI Fellow of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. Hired as part of the Synthetic Biology Cluster, Mike’s research focuses on natural product discovery and the precision engineering of bacterial species for biotechnological applications.  Read More

Linda Kinkel, Professor of Plant Pathology, joins BTI

Linda Kinkel, Professor of Plant Pathology, joins BTI

Linda Kinkel’s research focuses on the ecology of microbial communities in native prairie and agricultural soils. Kinkel’s work on the ecology and evolutionary biology of streptomycetes and other antibiotic producing bacteria has potential applications in the management of soil-borne plant pathogens.  Her current research, supported by MnDRIVE, will examine the impact of microbial inoculants and carbon inputs on disease suppression and plant productivity in Minnesota’s potato crop.  Learn more about Linda’s research.

On the move: structural microbiologist Carrie Wilmot moves to St. Paul, joins BTI

A new research home in St. Paul is bringing longtime CBS faculty member Carrie Wilmot exciting new opportunities for collaboration.

For Carrie Wilmot, it’s all about the molecules.

Wilmot, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics and the newest member of the BioTechnology Institute, is a structural biologist. Her focus is on the physical structure proteins take that allows them to do their job of catalyzing life-giving chemical reactions within cells.

But she’s a structural biologist with a twist: She loves connecting her work with that of scientists in related disciplines, creating a network of knowledge that weaves together structure, function and, ultimately, application. In other words, she’ll tell you what a molecule looks like and how it does its job, then team with chemists, chemical engineers, microbiologists and others to explore not only why, but also what we might do with that knowledge to make the world a better place. Read More

Flask crowd

Will Harcombe’s fascination with evolution and ecosystem function adds a dynamic dimension to the quest to better understand — and tap the power of — the microorganisms in our lives.

“Community” means different things to different people. To an urban planner, it’s a neighborhood bustling with people. To a landscape ecologist, it’s the collection of plants and animals that paint a riotous portrait of life on the raw canvas of a barren landscape.

To Will Harcombe, it’s a whole bunch of microbes duking it out — and occasionally teaming up — in an Erlenmeyer flask, or an intestinal tract, or a wastewater treatment plant as they work (evolutionarily speaking) to boost their survival in the moving-target milieu of other microbes working to do the same.

Harcombe, who joined the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the BioTechnology Institute through the Microbial Systems research cluster in December, studies the evolution of cooperation and competition in bacteria and other microorganisms from a molecular perspective. His goal: to understand and be able to quantitatively predict how microbial communities change over time due to the interplay of their constituents’ physiological activities. Read More