A new award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allow an early career scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego to investigate the hidden properties of molecules vital in new green biofuel production efforts and other bioenergy initiatives.
Eric Allen, an associate professor of marine biology and molecular biology at Scripps and UC San Diego s Division of Biological Sciences, was awarded an NSF CAREER grant (Faculty Early Career Development Program) to investigate the genetic and physiological underpinnings of microbial fatty acids that have gained attention in recent years as potential sources of renewable fuels and chemicals.
CAREER awards represent the National Science Foundation s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
Allen, who received a doctoral degree from Scripps in 2002 and returned to a faculty position in 2006, has been an early leader in marine genomics and a growing area known as metagenomics, in which the tools of genomic analysis are applied to communities of microbes in the environment.
As part of the $865,000 CAREER award, Allen and members of his laboratory will explore chemical pathways in marine bacteria via the increasingly abundant information provided by genome and metagenome DNA sequencing. Allen and his colleagues recently discovered more than 20 biosynthetic pathways involved in the production of diverse fatty acid molecules, but only six have been linked to identifiable products.
The chemical products produced by the majority of these pathways are completely unknown, so that becomes the raw material for doing this massive genetic-based biosynthetic characterization for the NSF CAREER award, said Allen.
The investigations will reveal details about fatty acids, or lipids, that are key in ramping up production of clean biofuels intended to reduce the pollutants emitted from today s fossil fuels.
Beyond biofuels, Allen believes the studies will produce information for other important areas. Learning about marine chemical pathways could lead to a better understanding of how to produce omega-3 fatty acid fish oils, renowned for their beneficial role in preventing heart disease, from microbial sources. Currently omega-3 supplements are extracted from wild fish, reducing already dwindling fishery stocks. Metagenomc discovery combined with metabolic engineering may be able to dictate how to produce these heart-smart fats in the laboratory and thereby increase fish sustainability. Information for so-called nutraceutical health products from marine bacteria is one possible outcome of these investigations. Identifying new and promising biochemical pathway products from marine bacteria could also result in biomedical applications, with products resulting in potential candidates for anti-inflammation, antibacterial products, and other drugs to treat diseases.
Understanding how we can manipulate microbial metabolisms to produce new fatty acid-based compounds for potential biofuel applications is just the start, said Allen.