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Sustainability via Synthetic Biology: A Growing Role for Biotechnology in the Chemical Industry

Speaker: Brian Pfleger, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Series: CBE Departmental Seminars
Location: Elgin Room (E-Quad A224)
Date/Time: Wednesday, September 20, 2017, 4:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Finding a sustainable alternative for today’s petrochemical industry is a major challenge facing chemical engineers and society at large. To be sustainable, routes for converting carbon dioxide and light into organic compounds for use as both fuels and chemical building blocks must be identified, understood, and engineered. Advances in synthetic biology and other biological engineering disciplines have expanded the scope of what can be produced in a living organism. As in other engineering disciplines, synthetic biologists want to apply a general understanding of science (e.g. biology and biochemistry) to construct complex systems from well-characterized parts (e.g. DNA and protein). Once novel synthetic biological systems (e.g. enzymes for biofuel synthesis) are constructed, they must be engineered to function inside evolving cells without negatively impacting the host’s physiology. In most cases first generation systems fail to meet this goal. My group uses systems biology tools to identify metabolic, regulatory, and/or physiological barriers which often can be overcome with metabolic engineering strategies. A major challenge to implementing these strategies is controlling the abundance of system proteins at optimal levels. In this talk, I will describe some of our recent efforts to build trans-acting regulatory systems from TAL-effectors and deactivated Cas9 in both Escherichia coli and an industrially attractive cyanobacteria Synechococcus sp. strain PCC7002. I will also describe work that uses these tools to develop strains of bacteria for producing chemical building blocks such as organic acids, alpha-olefins, amino acids, fatty alcohols, and bioplastics.
Brian received his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University in 2000 and earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2005 from the University of California-Berkeley. Brian was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan from 2005-2007. Brian is currently the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison with appointments in Biomedical Engineering, the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program, and the graduate program in Cell and Molecular Biology. Brian’s research has been recognized with young investigator awards from 3M, NSF (CAREER), DOE (Early Career), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR-YIP), Biotechnology and Bioengineering (Daniel IC Wang Award), the Society of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology and Purdue University (Mellichamp lectureship). Brian also received the Benjamin Smith Reynolds teaching award from the UW-Madison College of Engineering for his efforts to introduce undergraduates to biotechnology.