Research Projects

CurtisLab Research 'Snapshots' Fa2014


Fundamentally, CurtisLab is a Biochemical Engineering Laboratory. Its ambition is nothing short of changing the world by applying bioprocess design and optimization towards energy conversion, environmental remediation, and medically relevant bioproducts with particular emphasis on realizing scaleable, low-cost solutions. The hallmarks of the CurtisLab (beyond its interdisciplinary approach bordering on 'ADD') include bioreactor design, process control, and molecular biology, predominantly applied to the field of plant biotechnology. An important principle of CurtisLab is its conviction to support undergraduate research at Penn State.


The Evolution of CurtisLab

Though technically receiving his Ph.D. at Purdue in Chemical Engineering, Dr. Curtis completed his work on scale-up of (opium) poppy physically within its Horticulture Department. When he came back to Penn State as a faculty member in 1988, Dr. Curtis joined with a dual appointment as a Chemical Engineering professor and the Director of the now-defunct Biotech Institute, running the $15M+ Shared Fermentation Facility (still in existence in the depths of Fenske) where he scaled-up...anything and everything. Plants. CHO & HeLa cells. Insects. Parsitic nematodes. Fungi--edible, myccorhiza, and entomopathogenic. Microalgae. Bacteria---even syngas fermenters and mangetotactic bacteria!

Thus, rather than having to narrow his work to one field of expertise, this experience enabled him to leapfrog into multiple disciplines i.e. Plant Science and Biomedical Engineering, under the larger umbrella of bioreactor design. Meanwhile, his own passion for plants spurned his own chemical engineering research in the field of Plant Biotechnology, which initially focused on secondary metabolites, fungal elicitation of plant compounds, and scale-up of plant cell suspension and hairy root in bioreactor systems.

The new millennium's push for decreased foreign oil dependence naturally channeled much of CurtisLab's expertise into finding alternative energy solutions. CurtisLab's work in Algae Biofuels was a natural sequitur to work on plant propagation and took Dr. Curtis to work with Green Fuels Technologies during the former half of his sabbatical in 2007; the latter half being spent at George Church's Laboratory at Harvard, which therefore incorporated molecular biology techniques into CurtisLab. In turn, this gave rise to work on transgenic protein expression in plants---and sometimes even mushrooms---as well as Membrane Protein Expression in a bacterial host. Coming full circle, work in Metabolic Engineering combined the best of both worlds: algae's genes for fuel synthesis in a bacterial host powered in essence by solar energy.

In combination, these projects facilitated development of two courses in Penn State's Chemical Engineering Department, respectively ChE 340 and 438. The former being an Introduction to Biomolecular Engineering and the latter ChE 438, Bioprocess Engineering, being a senior-level synthesis-driven course. These laid the groundwork for the creation of the Chemical Engineering's Undergraduate Bio-option. Teaching and research at the undergraduate level has always been a major emphasis for CurtisLab with numerous papers with exclusive undergraduate authorship---even some of the most frequently cited. Dr. Curtis also brought the NSF-REU (National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates) to Penn State and continues to host a NSF-REU student every summer. Over the years, CurtisLab has trained more than 400 undergraduates across majors e.g. Chemical Engineering, Mathematics, Biology, Plant Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

Given CurtisLab's holistic approach to bioreactor design and process control, Cellulosic Fuels, in which land biomass e.g. sticks, stover, are converted into fuels, was a natural evolution, realizing the full potential of plants' life cycle and bridging CurtisLab's work in plant propagation and biofuels.

Over the years, given Dr. Curtis' vast expertise and experience, he has consulted with numerous companies including (but not limited to) Chromatan, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Merck, Monsanto, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Rohm & Hass, & Weyerhauser. CurtisLab has also published papers across many disciplines including (but also not limited to) Chemistry, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Plant Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Materials Science & Engineering, Bioinformatics, Plant Pathology, Immunology, Applied Physics, and Microbiology.