UW-Madison crest
Decorative wireframe globe

Chemical and Biological Engineering


Christos Maravelias and Jennifer Reed

For two years, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has funded Assistant Professors Christos Maravelias (left) and Jennifer Reed (right), who are developing computational approaches to help increase the amount of ethanol that E. coli can produce. (large image)

Exploiting E. coli for producing ethanol

A giant vat of plant material covered in E. coli may not be appetizing, but it does hold promise for producing abundant, renewable energy. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is supporting researchers in a variety of disciplines working to convert cellulosic biomass into advanced biofuels.

For two years, the GLBRC has funded Assistant Professors Christos Maravelias and Jennifer Reed (right), who are developing computational approaches to help increase the amount of ethanol that E. coli can produce.

Every plant synthesizes a type of carbohydrate called cellulose, making it the most abundant organic material on the planet. Found in inedible parts of plants, cellulose is composed of a high-energy sugar called glucose, which can be fermented in tanks with E. coli or other bacteria. Enzymes in the bacteria break down glucose, producing ethanol as a byproduct of the fermentation process.

Reed’s and Maravelias’ models help narrow the field for researchers searching for an optimal ethanol-producing strain of E. coli. Reed and her team start by looking at the E. coli genome and identify the enzymes and the biochemical reactions particular enzymes can catalyze. She then models how cells re-route metabolism when particular enzymes are added or removed. Maravelias and his team are working to include regulatory networks into the models. Regulation determines which enzymes are expressed in certain conditions, such as increased or decreased oxygen environments, which in turn affect bacteria cell behavior.

Thousands of modified bacteria strains are possible, and Reed and Maravelias can make hypotheses about which strains would make the most ethanol. This narrowing of the field saves time and resources for their GLBRC collaborators experimenting with actual bacteria.

Reed says the partnership with GLBRC is mutually beneficial. “This is a great opportunity to work with people who are experts in microbiology and understand regulation and metabolism in E. coli,” she says.

Beyond borders: Puerto Rican partnership piques interest in science

Capitalizing on a long-standing relationship with the University of Puerto Rico, a research, educational and outreach initiative aims to broaden participation of underrepresented groups in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines.

To date, the Partnership for Research and Education in Materials has received $1.2 million in National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. It has now grown to include three University of Puerto Rico campuses: Mayaguez, Cayey and Rio Piedras. At UW-Madison, partners in the effort hail from two interdisciplinary NSF-funded centers, the Materials Science Research Science and Engineering Center on Nanostructured Interfaces and the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC).

Combining both experimental and theoretical approaches, these centers focus on developing and characterizing novel materials, such as beta-peptides and poly-betapeptides, engineered nanoparticles, liquid crystals, and multifunctional nanoporous materials. Innovative applications for their research include developing antimicrobial agents, minimizing potential environmental effects of engineered nanoparticles, engineering liquid-crystal-based materials for chemical and biological sensing or cell-culture applications, and constructing nanostructured materials that can chemically transform sustainable biological feedstocks into fuels and specialty chemicals.

The partnership exposes kindergarten through 12th-grade students to state-of-the-art materials science via educational and outreach efforts that include the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez Science on Wheels Educational Center. At the college level, the initiative includes programs that increase Hispanic and female undergraduate student participation in STEM disciplines and ultimately, in materials science and nanotechnology graduate programs and in the workforce. For young underrepresented and female faculty, the team has implemented a mentoring program that enhances their retention and success rate.

At UW-Madison, co-PIs on the effort are NSEC Director and Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker Professor Paul Nealey and MRSEC Director and Howard Curler Distinguished Professor Juan de Pablo, while University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez Chemical Engineering Professor Nelson Cardona Martinez directs the effort, with Chemistry Professor Juan López Garriga and University of Puerto Rico Cayey Chemistry Professor Luiz Fernandez Torres. “This partnership demonstrates that to preserve our long-standing relationship with partner institutions, including Puerto Rico, it is essential that we develop personal ties and professional connections to the new faculty at such institutions,” says de Pablo.

An essential component of the partnership relies on MRSEC Director of Education Greta Zenner and NSEC Education and Outreach Coordinator Andrew Greenberg. “This strategic partnership expands and strengthens our educational and outreach innovations to a much broader audience, reaching beyond Wisconsin and Puerto Rico,” says Nealey.

Interdisciplinary center facilitates connections via nanotechnology research

The UW-Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) addresses grand challenges associated with directed assembly of nanoscale materials into functional systems and architectures through self-assembly, chemical patterning and external fields.

Recently, the National Science Foundation renewed NSEC funding for five years, bringing the total investment in nanotechnology at UW-Madison through this mechanism to nearly $30 million. On campus, more than 100 faculty, staff and students participate in NSEC activities.

The NSEC includes three interdisciplinary research teams. In the first, researchers explore new materials and processes to improve the performance of advanced materials using self-assembling block copolymers. Another team studies directed assembly of synthesized biologically inspired organic nanostructures in which functional side-chains display unique ordering, both in sequence along a backbone and in three-dimensional arrangement in space. A third group explores, harnesses and uses non-equilibrium processes, including external fields, to manipulate nanoparticle and macromolecule assembly.

Outcomes of these transformative and interdisciplinary activities are to revolutionize nanomanufacturing and discovery and control of new materials and material architectures. Applications include, for example, data storage and integrated circuits, new materials with antifungal properties, development of optical mapping platforms for high-throughput analysis of entire genes, and development of liquid-crystal plasmonic-based sensors for toxicants and biomolecules.

NSEC research teams also investigate the biological effects and environmental fate of engineered nanoparticles and conduct basic research on communication and public opinion related to how lay audiences make sense of complex information conveyed through the Internet. An ambitious and unique education and outreach program cultivates the next generation of nanoscale science and engineering experts with diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds.

“My faculty colleagues and I are very excited to have garnered the resources to continue to expand interdisciplinary research on campus, break down college and departmental barriers, provide shared facilities to internal and external users, build connections to regional industries through our advanced materials industrial consortium, offer opportunities for undergraduates in the research enterprise, and increase campus diversity,” says Milton J. and A. Maude Shoemaker Professor Paul Nealey, NSEC director.

University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering University of Wisconsin-Madison