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IU biologist receives Department of Energy's top young faculty award

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University biologist investigating how microbes might interact to better produce biofuels from renewable resources has received a $750,000 U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Research Program award, the agency's most prestigious award for early-career, tenure-track teachers and scholars.

James "Jake" McKinlay, an assistant professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology, received the five-year funding award from the Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research. His proposal to explore how two microbial species might work better together than alone in producing hydrogen gas biofuel was one of 68 funded from 850 submitted.

Numerous microbes can convert renewable resources into products such as biofuels, and to date most efforts have focused on engineering single species that can perform all the necessary tasks needed to produce biofuels, McKinlay said.

"Coordinating all these tasks in a single microbe can be challenging and can lead to undesired traits like the inefficient use of the food source," he said. "But in nature, diverse microbes often work together to use food sources like plant-derived lignin and cellulose that resist degradation. The idea here is to create a similar cooperative relationship in the lab where each microbe supplies the other with a nutrient required for survival."

By creating a co-culture -- a mixture of two microbial species -- McKinlay hopes to decipher how metabolisms of the two microbes interact, how they might evolve together to improve nutrient transfer, and how they might be optimized to create a tailor-made mixture for the economical production of hydrogen gas and other biofuels from renewable resources. Currently, over 90 percent of the hydrogen gas used by society is derived from fossil fuels, and while numerous microbes convert renewable resources into hydrogen gas, none are currently competitive against the existing industries.

"We're taking a lesson from nature that multiple microbial species help each other to thrive on food sources such as plant residues that those same species could not use if on their own," he said. "We already know that mixtures of specialized microbes can sometimes outperform a single engineered strain for producing chemicals of value to society."

The idea is to develop a co-culture of a photosynthetic bacteria and a fermentative microbe that uses sugar and energy from sunlight to produce hydrogen gas. The idea was first attempted by other researchers about 30 years ago, but obtaining a stable relationship between the two species has persisted as a major obstacle. McKinlay has addressed this obstacle, imposing a strategy that ensures that the two microbes can maintain a long-term cooperative relationship. This approach paves the way for experiments that could not otherwise be done and will ideally lead to a road-map for devising strategies to enhance biofuel production.

Before coming to IU in 2011, McKinlay most recently was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. He earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 2006 and earlier this year was one of two junior faculty members from IU to receive a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a consortium of universities in strategic partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Contact: Steve Chaplin
Indiana University

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