Assistant Professor, Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development University of Minnesota
Life but not alive: bioengineering with synthetic cells
All of biological research is done on a single sample: that of modern, terrestrial life. In the quest to engineer synthetic living systems, we seek to expand that sample size, enabling investigation to general properties of life in the lineage agnostic, synthetic organisms.
Synthetic minimal cells are liposomal bioreactors that have some, but not all properties of live cells. Creating artificial living systems allows us to diversify the chassis of biological studies, and provides new opportunities for bioengineering.
We can answer questions about healthy and diseased natural cells, and ask new questions about the limits and possibilities of biology.
THURSDAY I OCT. 6 I 3:30-4:30 PM CST I HYBRID SEMINAR
Unique strengths of NMR metabalomics: In vivo metabolism & improved compound identification
Metabolomics is an important component of systems biology research in biology and biomedicine. Two major technologies are widely used in metabolomics research, mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Recently, LC-MS has gained in popularity, thanks largely to its high sensitivity and ability to detect 10s of thousands of features.
In this talk, I will highlight some of the unique strengths of NMR metabolomics, most notably approaches to study metabolic dynamics in real-time in cells or microorganisms. I will also discuss the difficulty that the entire field faces in confident metabolite identification and will present recent approaches to better combine NMR with LC-MS and computational chemistry to improve compound identification.
THURSDAY I SEPT. 29 I 3:30-4:30 PM CST I HYBRID SEMINAR
Redox Enzymes of Carbon Transformation, through an electrochemical lens
This seminar will use iron-sulfur cluster proteins and enzymes as examples to illustrate how a far-ranging series of redox-active metalloproteins can be examined through an electrochemical lens, to understand the role that specific redox couples play in complex enzymatic mechanisms and biological pathways. The main focus will be the impact and interplay of ferredoxin — small, ubiquitous iron-sulfur cluster redox relays — upon the function of members of the oxo-acid:ferredoxin oxidoreductase (OFOR) enzyme superfamily will be discussed. OFORs are essential players in the carbon cycle, and are considered to be reversible enzymes. However, like hydrogenases and other reversible enzymes, the design features that nature has employed to modulate the ‘bias’ of reactive toward either oxidation or reduction is unclear. And, like hydrogenases, understanding the redox couples of OFORs has proven challenging historically. Here, a combination of electrochemical and spectroscopic studies will be presented as a series of OFOR enzymes from varying biological sources and pathways will be compared and contrasted.
THURSDAY I SEPT. 22 I 3:30-4:30 PM CST I HYBRID SEMINAR
Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and (by courtesy) Chemical and Biological Engineering Faculty Fellow, Center for Synthetic Biology University of Minnesota
Multi-Omics Investigation of Carbon Flux Networks in Environmental Bacteria of Biotechnological Relevance
Biological conversion of organic wastes into valuable products represents an important component of a sustainable energy portfolio towards decreasing our reliance on petroleum-based chemical production. Critical to this effort is a fundamental understanding of the metabolic networks that control carbon utilization by environmental bacteria, which provide an array of potential biological platforms to develop new chassis for biotechnological targets.
Dr Aristilde and her team has developed 13C-metabolomics approaches coupled with other omics techniques to unravel the metabolic flux networks in bacterial species isolated from soils, plant roots, and wastewater streams. We combine high-resolution fingerprinting of metabolites and metabolic reactions with genome-based predictions, proteomics analyses, and fluxomics modeling.
This walk will present multi-omics investigations to obtain new insights on the metabolic mechanisms underlying carbon flux routing in Pseudomonas putida, Priestia megaterium (formerly known as Bacillus megaterium), and Comamonas testosteroni. Guiding principles to identify target pathway candidates for metabolic engineering will also be highlighted.
THURSDAY I SEPT. 15 I 3:30-4:30 PM CST I HYBRID SEMINAR
The BioTechnology Institute (BTI) provides advanced research, training, and industry interaction in biological process technology, a major area of biotechnology research. The Institute is the central University of Minnesota vehicle for coordinated research in the biological, chemical, and engineering aspects of biotechnology and home to the MnDRIVE Environment Initiative
(1) Advance and support cross-disciplinary research and innovation at the forefront of biotechnology,
(2) Support workforce and professional skills training in biotechnology,
(3) Facilitate and develop industry relations in biotechnology,
(4) Serve as a central biotechnology resource on campus and
(5) Provide biomanufacturing expertise and services to the University, Minnesota, and industry through its BioResource Center (BRC).
BTI Accomplishes its mission by:
(1) bringing together life-science and engineering faculty, researchers, postdocs, and students with shared research interests in biotechnology-related disciplines and (2) providing administrative support and resources for scientific exchange, networking, collaborative research, and professional skills development and training of its community members.
BTI is dedicated to fostering a safe, equitable, inclusive, and collaborative environment for its students, researchers, staff, and faculty. BTI values diversity of backgrounds, disciplines, and experiences as critical factors for achieving its mission of cutting-edge biotechnology research, training, and service.
The following core principles guide BTI:
Collaboration and Teamwork
Innovation and Excellence
Vision and Goals
BTIs goals are:
I. To be a major driver for the creation of a sustainable bioeconomy in MN by promoting and prioritizing cutting-edge fundamental and applied research towards the development of crucial enabling biotechnologies and synthetic biology approaches. BTI drives advances in a broad array of applications, including:
(1) carbon capture and conversion,
(2) sustainable biomanufacturing of value-added compounds and advanced materials,
(3) bioremediation, recycling, and recovery of valuable elements and molecules,
(4) discovery and design of therapeutics, diagnostics, materials, and processes
II To become a key player on campus for future MN bioeconomy workforce development by:
(1)offering up-to-date biotechnology training, professional skills development, and industrial networking
opportunities to our students, postdocs, and research staff.
(2) supporting the creation and implementation of relevant biotechnology curricula and skills training activities.
III. To expand BTIs visibility and footprint locally and nationally by:
(1) expanding its industrial relations and connections through its BRC, faculty expertise, and entrepreneurship
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.
Mine wastewater bioremediation on Minnesota’s Iron Range
By Evan Whiting
When people think of fungi, they typically conjure images of mushrooms: portobellos, oysters, truffles, or shiitakes. But a mushroom—the fruiting body we see above ground—is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fungi. Most fungi are comprised of a tangled network of small thread-like structures called hyphae. Others, like yeasts, are microscopic, consisting only of single cells.
In fact, there is a huge diversity of fungi out there—some experts estimate that there are over two million species of fungi living on Earth today. And they’re important members of modern ecosystems. Excellent scavengers and nutrient recyclers, many fungi also gather materials from their surroundings and can even capture and store environmental contaminants. Experts are actively working to understand the underlying mechanisms, but scientists, engineers, and industry professionals also see the potential for using fungi in bioremediation—the cleanup of environmental contaminants or pollutants using living organisms, usually microbes.
Dr. Cara Santelli, an associate professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and a member of the University of Minnesota Biotechnology Institute, is an expert on bioremediation and the interface between microbes and minerals. Santelli and her colleagues investigate organisms with the potential for bioremediation of mining waste, including several species of fungi. One of her ongoing projects, funded by MnDRIVE Environment, involves a species of fungus native to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where high concentrations of metals in the wastewater from an inactive underground iron mine could, if left untreated, threaten ecosystems and natural resources on the surface.
Located near Lake Vermilion and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Soudan Iron Mine was once a prolific source of iron ore. In the 1960s, when mining operations shut down, the mine became a research and educational facility. But more than fifty years later, there are still lingering issues with toxic metals in the mine’s wastewater, which is currently treated with expensive ion-exchange filters. Luckily, there may be a cheaper, local, and ‘organic’ solution to this problem: bioremediation with a native species of fungus (Periconia sp.) that grows in the salty, metal-rich waters in the depths of the Soudan Mine. Periconia is capable of producing manganese oxide minerals that incorporate metal ions in their chemical structures, much like blocks in a microscopic game of Tetris.
Dr. Brandy Stewart, a postdoctoral researcher in the Santelli Lab, has been studying this fungal bioremediation system in detail. Stewart is an expert in biogeochemistry, or the interplay between chemicals, microbes, and their environment. With additional background in environmental consulting, she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this new project. Currently, Stewart studies the optimal growth conditions for the project’s focal fungus, as well as how efficiently it produces manganese oxide minerals using nearby metal ions from the surrounding brine.
The fungus needs a cocktail of nutrients to grow and remain healthy, but the actual wastewater from the mine might not be the ideal growth medium. Even for this mighty fungus, certain metals, like copper, can be toxic at higher concentrations, so Stewart has set out to facilitate the removal of these metals without hurting the fungus itself. She likens this to our own dietary choices: “If you ate nothing but doughnuts, you probably wouldn’t be very healthy, but if you ate well and got plenty of fruits and veggies most of the time, you could still have a doughnut every once in a while and be okay.”
Thankfully, the fungus seems to grow quite well in the suboptimal, mine-like conditions simulated in the laboratory, especially when grown in the presence of carpet fibers. These fibers may be acting as a sort of ‘scaffolding’ upon which the fungus can grow, or even as an additional food source for the fungus. Regardless, Stewart has found that the presence of carpet fibers dramatically improves the growth and productivity of the fungus, which creates a thick biofilm where the manganese oxide minerals form and accumulate . As revealed by X-ray fluorescence images, these minerals are often laden with captured metals, demonstrating the efficiency of this system for removing metals from wastewater.
X-ray fluorescence imagery showing very similar groupings of manganese oxide minerals (left) and copper ions (right) along strands of Periconia sp. fungal hyphae growing in the lab. Courtesy of Brandy Stewart, UMN.
Although still in the experimental stages, Santelli and Stewart eventually hope to build larger bioreactors to scale up their fungal bioremediation system for applications in the Soudan Mine. These bioreactors may be able to help prolong the lifespans of the ion-exchange filters already in use—or potentially replace them, if they prove to be at least as effective at removing metals like copper, cobalt, and nickel from the mine’s wastewater. These metals are not just potential environmental contaminants; they’re also economically important for myriad purposes, including electronics and battery production. If enough of these metals could be efficiently captured in manganese oxides produced by fungi and later recovered, we could potentially capitalize on them.
And mining wastewater might be just the beginning, according to Santelli. There are large amounts of dissolved solids in many types of industrial wastewaters, so there is great potential for using fungi (and/or other microbes) for bioremediation of contaminants in wastewaters well beyond the Iron Range. With such a huge diversity of fungi out there, it’s only a matter of time until another helpful fungus among us becomes the next big hit in bioremediation.
Evan Whiting is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Minnesota and an affiliate writer in the University of Minnesota Science Communication Lab. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Feature photo: Photomicrograph of Periconia sp. fungal hyphae. Courtesy of Brandy Stewart, UMN
The Bio & Tech Innovation (BTI) Series is a seminar series led by graduate students and postdocs to foster career development in industrial applications and academic research in biotechnology-related fields.
Flash Talks and Social Hour – Director’s Introduction (by Claudia Schmidt-Dannert) – Flash Talk session – Social Hour (food and drinks)
Pizza and refreshments will be served on a first-come, first-served basis.