Senior Jaehwan Kim bioengineers yeast strains for sustainable production of chemicals

Senior Jaehwan Kim spent the summer working with José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, on a bioengineering project, sponsored by the Andlinger Center’s summer internship program.

Senior Jaehwan Kim, who is majoring in chemistry, spent last summer as an intern at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University using cutting-edge bioengineering tools to modify different yeast species for the sustainable production of biofuels, bioplastics, chemicals and drugs.

Kim worked with José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Since his summer internship, Kim has gone on to investigate questions of sustainability in his independent work. The research Kim worked on in Avalos’ lab helped him develop practical knowledge of computational questions he dealt with in his thesis, which he handed in on April 16.

“Bioengineering … it just sounds really cool and kind of mysterious,” he said. “Or it sounded mysterious to me before I came in to this lab.”

Yeast is a promising source for the production of biofuels and other important chemicals because these microbes are cheap, plentiful, relatively easy to grow, do not compete with land for growing food, and do not damage the environment, said Kim. Products derived from bioengineered yeast can replace commodity chemicals derived from petroleum, such as gasoline or jet fuel, and specialty chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, which are costly or environmentally damaging to extract. Many important chemicals used in drug manufacturing come from rainforests, which are under immense pressure from loggers.

Making these chemicals in the lab with yeast would help ease this pressure, Kim said. Kim’s specific research involved modifying yeast strains by splicing them with different genes for them to grow rapidly and to be used in the future for their sustainable production.

Kim said he learned many skills through the internship, which he believes will help him be better equipped to work in similar fields.

“The idea of mixing metabolic engineering and product formation is something that I have wanted to try, and this project was the closest project I got to learning tools and skills most closely related to my interest,” he said. “It was really fun. I love the fact I got the opportunity to work here.”

Kim said he was motivated to join Avalos’ lab because it combined bioengineering with finding sustainable solutions to help the planet.

“If we can find a way to produce these compounds in sustainable yields, which is what this project is working towards at least, then we wouldn’t have to be so destructive,” he said.

More on the summer internship program:

Kim was one of six undergraduates in summer 2017 who embarked on energy and environmental research at the Andlinger Center.

The Peter B. Lewis Fund for Student Innovation in Energy and the Environment and the Dede T. Bartlett P03 Fund for Student Research in Energy and the Environment, which are administered by the Andlinger Center, funded five summer internship projects by theses six students.

This past summer’s students were selected for their excellent academic record and the promising potential of their research in helping secure the world’s energy and environmental future. The students received a $4,000 stipend for the summer research and up to an additional $4,000 for research-related expenses. Visit the Andlinger Center website for more information.

Greta Shum and Sharon Adarlo contributed to this article.