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  5. Early career award supports cyanobacteria biofuel research

Early career award supports cyanobacteria biofuel research

Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Reed
Chemical and Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Jennifer Reed

A UW-Madison engineer is seeking biofuels in an unlikely sounding place–toxic algae blooms–in search of new, sustainable sources for alternative fuels to satisfy U.S. transportation demands and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Jennifer Reed, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, was one of two UW-Madison researchers to receive a five-year, $750,000 early-career award from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research to explore new possible ways to produce biofuels.

Reed, a researcher in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, works with blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, perhaps best known for its colorful, toxic blooms in lakes. It is also one of the world's oldest and most adaptable bacteria, capable of thriving in both fresh and brackish water and using photosynthesis to produce sugar and oxygen. Although some cyanobacteria already are capable of converting solar energy into biofuels such as hydrogen, Reed is developing ways to make them produce the biofuel butanol from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Working with a strain of cyanobacteria whose genome has been genetically sequenced and that grows well with a high metabolic rate, Reed is developing computer models to analyze each aspect of the microbe's complex metabolic system to learn how to engineer it to produce butanol. Armed with that knowledge, she can then "tweak" the models to add or subtract genes, alter gene expression, or incorporate other changes to improve cyanobacteria butanol production. "And in our experiments, we will actually implement strains we design on the computer," says Reed.

The result, she says, will be not only a more efficient, effective, biofuel-producing cyanobacteria strain, but also computational tools and approaches that other researchers can use to understand and engineer new organisms. "The general tools we develop will be more broadly applicable to people interested in metabolic engineering," says Reed.

Renee Meiller