Research Projects

Algae is viewed as a 'third generation' biofuel. Our work with algae biofuels has ranges from ultra-high density photobioreactor design, to studies of pH control based on nitrogen source utilization. We have run continuous algae reactors for hundreds of days, and conducted outdoor scaled up algae work at the Arizona ATP3 test facility. Much of our past and ongoing work has focused on the the isoprene hydrocarbon-producing algae Botryococcus braunii. This is very different from the typical 'biodiesel' approach. Click on the image above to learn more.
Bioethanol can be made from sticks (cellulose) analogous to the use of starch from corn - but avoiding the food versus fuel debate. Our labs work on cellulosic biofuels has focused on 'Consortium bioprocess', which involves engineering a symbiosis between multiple organisms to overcome the recalcitrance of biomass breakdown. This division of labor can achieve what an individual organism cannot. Click on the image above to learn more.
We demonstrated the ability of a bacteria genetically engineered to make hydrocarbons from 'fermenting' the gasses of an explosive gas mixture of H2, O2, and CO2. You can think of this as analogous to fixing carbon with photosynthesis, only the energy is supplied by hydrogen. This project was executed on the ARPA-e ELCTROFLUELS program. Click on the continuous flow bioreactor above to learn more ... this system was used to measure the maintenance energy requirements to demonstrate that using a bacteria that has lower baseline energy requirements to live, is advantageous for biofuel applications.
Our current collaboration in Chesapeake bay watershed protection (from agricultural manure runoff) is an example of broad use of plants to remediate environmental problems. We worked with Exxon/Mobile to remediate highly contaminated sites from oil refinery resid many decades ago - with great success. Other projects have involved methods of 'metagenomics' to extract DNA from soil to obtain genes from organisms that cant be grown on petri dishes. We have had interest in biofertilizers, and had a EPA P3 Student Design competition to develop educational demonstration in Washington DC on nitrogen fixation in soil. Similarly, we have isolated and sequenced bacteria symbionts of algae that produce vitamins as a symbiosis as well. CLICK on the image above to learn more.
Our efforts in Plant Biotechnology span over 30 years with the original work of Dr. Curtis' thesis on growing opium poppy cultures in tissue culture. A decade of effort examined bioreactor improvements including seminal patents to use low cost plastic bag systems for tissue culture. Our work on root culture addressed the issues of scaling roots to large scale in bioreactors as well. Other topics in Applied Plant Biotechnology include production of animal vaccines in plants, genetic engineering of mushrooms, and efforts to develop transgenic plants for insect resistance. Our lab has developed extensive tools for plant biotechnology including improved Agrobacterium for plant transformation, and extensive reporter genes and vectors for transient gene expression. Hundreds of undergraduates have contributed to these extensive efforts. Click on the pretty plants above to learn more.
Our contributions to Food security can be viewed as a supply chain of superior plants (propagation bioreactors) or the protection of crops in the field. The work with the Gates Foundation focused on African Food security, that built upon bioreactor work we developed for trees (supported by Weyerhauser) and chocolate tree (Cacao - supported by NSF). Protection of plants in the field is a form of 'Gene Therapy' where our work with DARPA under the Insect Allies program focused on using whiteflies and viral vectors to deliver plant protective genes to plants. This topic overlaps quite a bit with 'Applied Plant Biotechnology' under the adjacent heading. CLICK on the somatic embryo above to learn more.
Membrane proteins are difficult to produce in functional form since they require membranes. A natural extension of our photobioreactor work with Algae, was to improve the Rhodobacter membrane expression system (Developed by Argonne Labs) to achieve orders of magnitude higher productivity. An extensive effort examining the water channel Aquaporin provided the first measurements of water transport - which can reaach > 10^10 water molecules per second (which is of interest for composite water purification applications). Click on Rhodobacter bacteria used as the expression platform above to learn more.