BTI members connect with colleagues in Japan

BTI members connect with colleagues in Japan

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)

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.