Primordial Peptides

UMN researcher Burckhard Seelig wins the prestigious Simons Investigator Award and joins the Collaboration on the Origins of Life

University of Minnesota researcher Burckhard Seelig (BMBB, BTI) has a longstanding interest in how the earliest forms of life may have come into existence. This year, his efforts were rewarded with a 5-year, one million dollar grant from the New York-based Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. One of two scientists invited to join the Collaboration in 2015, Seelig is part of a 21-member multi-disciplinary team looking at potential scenarios for how life could have started from non-biological matter, and the planetary conditions that could have supported the origin of life.

The goal of this Simons Collaboration is to fund an interactive community of investigators using systems reaching across disciplines, technologies, and institutions to advance our understanding of the processes which led to the emergence of life.

“This collaboration is a unique opportunity,” said Seelig. “There are a number of physicists, chemists, and biochemists, like me, but there are also planetary scientists and geobiologists. So, based on our knowledge of early planetary conditions, you can ask what kind of chemistry could have existed and talk to the chemist to find out what kind of reactions could have occurred. Then you can talk to the biochemists to see what you could make from those chemicals.”

In a field where much of the work is dominated by hypotheses, Seelig works experimentally to investigate the missing link between early non-biological amino acids, building blocks for complex proteins, and the modern alphabet of 20 amino acids that make up life’s universal genetic code.

“Today’s genetic code uses 20 amino acids. It did not start with all 20 right away, that’s for sure, but which ones exactly and in what order? This subject has been mostly theoretical. In our lab, we can actually make proteins using likely earlier versions of the genetic code and we can test them,” explained Seelig.

Dialing back the clock, his lab will test ever smaller alphabets of amino acids for their ability to produce functional proteins necessary for the survival of protocells at the origin of life. “If you have an alphabet of only early amino acids, can you make proteins as functional as those we have today? Probably not. But you can see what functions they have and ask what minimum alphabet is necessary to make a functional folded protein. So far, we don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to investigate with this project,” said Seelig. “The further you go back in time,” says Seelig, “the noisier the picture gets because we have less and less reliable information. We will never be able to really tell how life began, but what we hope to do is come up with realistic scenarios about how parts of this process could have happened. In our case, it’s about proteins.”

The award will fund two postdoctoral researchers and help support basic research, providing a welcome balance for the lab’s ongoing applied research on the synthesis of designer enzymes for medical applications and use in the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Seelig is a faculty member in the College of Biological Sciences Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics and a member of the University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institue.

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.

Palm trees and population genetics

Professor Anthony Dean talks about his part-time faculty appointment in Southern China.

Tony Dean (EEB/BTI) recently accepted a part-time post at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, where he will set up a second research lab in addition to his current lab at the University of Minnesota. Here, he talks about the excitement and adventure of moving to China, along with some of the challenges he will face.

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Gary Muehlbauer named distinguished McKnight Professor

BTI member Gary Muehlbauer, was recently named a Distinguished McKnight Professor. This award is granted to outstanding faculty members who have recently made the transition to full professor status. Muehlbauer is head of the Department of Plant Biology, and is also a part of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. His research is concentrating on wheat and barley and molecular genetics, as well as integrating genomics resources into barley breeding programs. Highest regards to Gary Muehlbauer.