Environmental contamination and increasing demand for renewable energy are two critical issues that need innovative and effective solutions to ensure a sustainable future. Biocatalysis, which refers to the use of enzymes or microbial cells for chemical transformations, can be exploited as a green chemistry alternative to address the challenges for environmental sustainability. This talk will present our research on understanding and engineering biocatalytic systems at the molecular level for i) degradation of emerging contaminants in water reclamation and reuse and ii) waste-to-energy/value biotransformation.
The first topic will focus on the development of renewable enzyme biocatalysts for treating recalcitrant organic contaminants. Specifically, synthetic biology and protein engineering approaches are used to develop a new type of surface-display enzyme biocatalysts that have unique advantageous features to overcome the drawbacks of conventional immobilized enzymes. Surface display of fungal laccase on Baker’s yeast cells can ensure the enzyme functionality while enhancing stability and enabling reuse. The biocatalyst can be easily regenerated through cell cultivation, without need for time-consuming and expensive protein purification. Renewability is assured by the ability to generate and automatically localize the enzyme of interest on the surface of biological cells through engineered biological machinery. Being at the interface of fundamental science and applied technology, the research could lead to an efficient, robust and renewable biocatalytic technology as an innovative advanced treatment alternative for water reclamation and reuse. The second topic will focus on renewable biofuel production from lignocellulosic waste materials. Specifically, molecular and systems biology techniques are used to understand and modify microbial metabolism at genetic level. Examples will illustrate development of novel whole cell biocatalyts for efficient conversion of cellulosic biomass components to biofuel through metabolic engineering, and discovery of gene regulation mechanisms and identification of novel gene targets for enhanced biofuel production through omics approaches. Underlying these studies is the combined application of molecular biology techniques, synthetic biology, systems biology, metabolic engineering, bioprocess and environmental engineering principles.
Na Wei, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame. Wei is currently leading the Environmental Molecular and Synthetic Biology Laboratory (https://www3.nd.edu/~nwei/index.html). She received her B.S. degree in Environmental Science and Engineering from Sichuan University, China, her Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). She was a postdoctoral fellow in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and Energy Bioscience Institute at UIUC. Wei’s research is focused on understanding and manipulating biological systems at the molecular level for beneficial applications towards environmental sustainability. Her research has been funded by NSF, NIH, DoD and USAID. Wei received NSF CAREER award in 2017.
Originally published at environmentalchange.nd.edu.