(7ad) Harnessing Diverse Microorganisms for Biochemical Production Using Carbon Dioxide

Authors: 
Boock, J. T., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Research Interests:

Biochemical production of compounds offers advantages over conventional synthesis due to the high specificity and diversity of biological catalysts, reactions occurring under labile conditions, and the use of renewable substrates. Despite the wide array of organisms, metabolic engineers have focused on only a few as production hosts, requiring complicated modification to match the metabolic potential found in nature. My laboratory will use advances in synthetic biology, omics characterization, systems biology and bioprospecting to evaluate and harness microorganisms with unique potential in biotechnology. We aim to 1) engineer organisms that have desired properties to make specific bioproducts (i.e. alcohols, acids, alkanes, and carotenoids), 2) characterize these hosts to utilize their metabolic potential, and 3) discover alternative pathways, organisms, and communities to expand the range of chemicals to be synthesized and traits to be selected from. As work in my group progresses, we will generate design rules to unlock the full potential of microbiology in bioproduction.

A common theme in my laboratory will be the intersection of carbon dioxide with biology. As human-produced CO2 levels continue to rise, finding creative ways to use and store CO2 are imperative to combating climate change. Using advances made in the field of electrofuels, we plant to rapidly evaluate organisms that fix carbon dioxide without using photosynthesis as bioproduction hosts. We will explore whether uncommon CO2 sequestration mechanisms can function in heterologous hosts as well as look for enhanced mechanisms, organisms, and communities in nature that show promise in taking up CO2 and making products of interest. Metabolic modeling will be used to predict optimal pathways to be incorporated for energetically feasible CO2 capture and which molecules will be best produced from these pathways. Protein homology networks will be built to discover and characterize novel carboxylase enzymes for carbon dioxide sequestration. Omics data will be collected and overlayed on existing models to further engineer the hosts and uncover new hypothetical enzymes to evaluate. In addition to using CO2 as a source of carbon in bioproduction, we plan to use supercritical carbon dioxide (scCO2) as a sustainable solvent to extract medium chain aliphatic compounds as they are made to eliminate toxicity issues. A focus of our laboratory is using systems biology to understand the complex mechanisms that endow these organisms with desired properties, and to develop clever strategies to manipulate them. This research will result in sustainable bioproduction hosts that can economically generate products from CO2, and will teach students the principles of metabolic engineering, molecular biology, protein engineering and systems biology.

Teaching Interests:

I would like my teaching to reflect my passion for Chemical Engineering and Biology as well as project-based learning. For instance, when teaching a core Chemical Engineering course, such as Kinetics, Separations, or Control Theory, I plan on including current and related research projects as case studies or as projects the students can expand upon. These additions to core Chemical Engineering courses will add tangible examples and current relevance to each class as well as fit within my Teaching Philosophy of students learning by synthesizing their own questions, going through the scientific process, and communicating with peers. Additionally, I would like to teach elective courses such as Bioprocess Engineering, Bioproduct Design, Systems Biology, and Bioenergy due to their current relevance and fit within my research plan. For all of my classes, I plan to use reverse course design to focus content and assessment on students achieving specific learning outcomes. I will use critical reflection to evaluate progress throughout a course and after completion to ensure class goals are being met and to build strong courses year after year. I believe that teaching in higher education goes well beyond the classroom to the mentoring of students and community outreach, and I plan to be active in providing mentorship to students, service to the scientific community through peer review, and connecting my research group with local high school science programs.