March 29, 2011

The Scientist: Prof. Ahner Uproots Environmental Biotech Possibilities

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Traditionally, plants are seen as providers of oxygen, shade or food; however, they have a variety of functions ranging from protein production to biofuels. Prof. Beth Ahner, biological and environmental engineering, researches a variety of these applications within the field of environmental biotechnology.

Ahner researches the connections between an organism’s chemistry and its potential engineering applications. “What is it about the chemistry that influences the organism and how do we harness that for a particular engineering application?” she asked.

Her research began with studying the effect of metal stress on the physiology of marine phytoplankton. She studied trace metal interactions among higher plants as well as their ability to absorb toxic trace metals from their environment –– a process otherwise known as phytoremediation.

“We are looking at the biochemistry of enzymes that produce detoxification peptides,” she explained. The purpose of researching seawater and soil is to try preventing toxic metals such as copper, cadmium and lead from being absorbed into plants in order to minimize food crop uptake of metals. One of her research sites for writing her thesis on phytoremediation was the metal-rich Boston Harbor.

However, Ahner’s most recent work involves generating transgenic plants to produce enzymes that would be important for biofuel production. Transgenic plants are plants that have foreign genes inserted into the chloroplast genome to create higher value products such as enzymes or proteins.

Initially, transgenic tobacco was used to make enzymes for biofuel production. However, one of the challenges facing scientists is improving the efficiency of celluloic ethanol production and making cheap enzymes. Enzymes catalyze the first step in converting cellulose to sugar and fermenting sugar into alcohol. The enzymes are then mixed with biomass to produce sugars and ethanol.

Working in collaboration with Prof. Maureen Hanson, molecular biology and genetics, and Prof. Ruth Richardson, civil and environmental engineering, Ahner is tackling the issue of economically producing algae to produce lipids for biofuel production and extract genes for proteins. These proteins can then be used in medicines or feed additives for cattle or fish.

Ahner is studying different angles on algal biofuel production such as developing diagnostic biomarkers for optimizing algal growth. She is using mass spectrometry to scan many proteins at once in order to identify the key proteins or stress responses involved in lipid biosynthesis to aid companies that are interested in lipid and algal biofuels.

“I would encourage young women to think about biofuel and engineering because there is that component in helping humanity solve those most pressing problems,” she said.

Original Author: Laura Comin