Steve Techtmann, associate professor of biological sciences, won a $1 million Future Insight Prize — awarded for innovative research in health, nutrition and energy — for his work to convert plastic waste and inedible biomass into edible protein
Techtmann’s groundbreaking research has been awarded the 2021 Future Insight Prize by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, along with research collaborator Ting Lu, professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“We use natural and engineered organisms to break down the plastics and non-edible plant biomass to convert the wastes into food,” Techtmann said. “Nature has provided us with biological systems for coping with many environmental issues. My role in this project is to identify and grow bacterial communities from the environment that can use wastes like plastic, as well as discover novel enzymes to break down plastics and other wastes more efficiently.”
The research was initially funded by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement award for $7.2 million over four years to refine a method of chemical and high heat (pyrolysis) deconstruction of plastic waste into protein powder and lubricants. Other researchers working on the project, titled BioPROTEIN (Biological Plastic Reuse by Olefin and Ester Transforming Engineered Isolates and Natural Consortia), are Michigan Tech chemical engineers Rebecca Ong and David Shonnard and materials engineer Joshua Pearce.
Assistant Professor Paul Goetsch received a $423,381 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the DREAM transcriptional repressor complex regulates the cell cycle of cellular progression and cellular quiescence.
Cellular division is extremely important as an organism grows to maturity, but just as important are the mechanisms that stop cells from dividing, because dysfunction in cellular quiescence generally leads to the development of cancer cells, Goetsch explains.
Working in the model system Caenorhabditis elegans, a 1 mm-long transparent nematode, the Goetsch lab is using CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing to disrupt how the DREAM complex forms and test how that affects its function. “By exploiting advances in genomic editing and genetic tools in a tractable model system, we will gain new insights into how the DREAM complex protects cellular and organismal health,” says Goetsch.
Another part of the grant supports bringing research directly into the classroom for Biological Sciences students in the second-year genetics lab. Goetsch and his colleagues are implementing Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) to provide students a glimpse into research opportunities within the department.
In spring 2021, Goetsch and his student Emily Washeleski developed a unique experiment combining C. elegans genetics with environmental microbiology. “We are continuing to expand upon our CURE approach to provide students equitable access to research experience as a cornerstone of their professional development within the department,” Goetsch says.
A research project led by Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Gordon Paterson, working with Assistant Professors Jill Olin and Trista Vick-Majors, and GLRC postdoctoral fellow Jim Junker, won a Michigan Sea Grant to study how invasive mussel larvae contribute to the flow of nutrients and energy in Lake Huron, particularly Saginaw Bay. Their grant was one of four awarded. The Tech researchers received just under $200,000.
“Zebra mussels and quagga mussels are an extensive problem throughout the Great Lakes Basin,” said Paterson. “A major consideration with their life history is that the fate of much of the larval stage, known as veligers, that is produced during spring-fall spawning is largely unknown. Also, we do not know the nutritious quality of veligers and subsequently what food value they may represent to other aquatic species.”
Sea Grant research program manager Michael Fraker said the projects were chosen because they “address topics identified by stakeholders as current areas of interest and need in the Great Lakes.” Sea Grant is a cooperative program of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Xiaohu (Mark) Tang’s Laboratory of Cancer Metabolism and Functional Genomics is using a three-year $413,090 grant from the National Institutes of Health to find ways to optimize the efficacy of targeted cysteine therapy and broaden its application for the treatment of different subtypes of breast cancer. Haiying Liu, professor of chemistry, is a co-investigator on this project.
“Targeted cancer therapy is an emerging trend in precision cancer medicine,” Tang explains. “It uses the specific genetic makeup of a patient’s tumor to select the safest and most effective personalized treatment, instead of the traditional symptom-driven practice of medicine. Identifying and targeting metabolic vulnerabilities in cancer is a promising therapeutic strategy.”
The NIH grant will also provide research-based training for undergraduates and graduate students in Biological Sciences and the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology programs. “The work will enable students to understand the complexity of cancer and motivate them to seek novel strategies to improve health issues,” says Tang.
Tang’s lab works to characterize deregulation of cancer metabolism and the role of nutrients during cancer initiation and progression. He is working to understand the underlying mechanisms of cancer to pursue workable alternative treatments for patients. He also hopes that a better understanding of diet-cancer interactions could establish a strategy for long-term cancer prevention. Tang is an assistant professor of biological sciences. He earned his Ph.D. at The Weizmann Institute of Science.
Erika Hersch-Green, plant evolutionary ecologist and associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Tech, received a $1.1 million National Science Foundation CAREER award to investigate how specific attributes of plants, such as their genome size, influence community biodiversity responses to increased nitrogen and phosphorus availability. Hersch-Green’s approach combines molecular, cytological, physiological, and phylogenetic techniques.
Hersch-Green is conducting her research on three fronts. First, she is collecting new data and combining this with data from globally distributed experimental grassland sites that have plots with various nutrient amendments, to look at how response patterns are also dependent on climatic conditions. Second, she is conducting controlled greenhouse studies to better understand mechanisms that focus on two common grassland plants: fireweed and goldenrod, both of which she has studied before. Lastly, she developed a new research site at Churning Rapids, north of Hancock and south of McClain State Park. There she is extending her research to look at how disturbance patterns affect levels of biodiversity.
She is also exploring ways to improve students’ scientific literacy and engagement in research. To accomplish this, she is incorporating students in grades 6 through 12 and undergraduates in research, enhancing research involvement in the classroom, facilitating effective scientific communication skills of graduate students, and promoting collaboration among undergraduate students and faculty in the Departments of Biological Sciences and Humanities. These students will produce video content that will be used to enhance education and public understanding of biological science and ecology.
To summarize, Hersch-Green aims to provide a system-level understanding of how nutrient eutrophication—the increasingly dense growth of particular plants at the expense of other species—and landscape disturbances are affecting individual organisms and multi-species communities by looking at their interactions.
Although she is passionate about her research, Hersch-Green is also deeply committed to the educational component of her CAREER award. Her educational goals are to increase both scientific literacy and engagement of high school and university students on critical topics related to nutrient eutrophication, biodiversity, evolutionary adaptation, and awareness of related STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career pathways.
Professor Amy Marcarelli and a multi-disciplinary team have received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the relationships between organic matter and micro-organisms in streams.
An ecosystems ecologist, Marcarelli is leading a team of ecosystem scientists, microbiologists, environmental chemists, and data scientists, all at Michigan Tech.
The researchers are conducting detailed laboratory experiments to gather data on how microbial communities work together to process complex mixtures of dissolved organic matter in streams. Steve Techtmann, associate professor of biological sciences and an environmental microbiologist, is doing all the microbial work on the project in his lab at Michigan Tech.
Dissolved organic matter comprises many different kinds of molecules that come from terrestrial and aquatic plants and microbes. The researchers expect different microbes that live in streams to be specialized to break down these different molecules.
“We expect the relationships to be extremely complicated,” Marcarelli says.
They are looking at rates of respiration, carbon breakdown, and energy release. They hope to discover how the characteristics of dissolved organic matter and stream microbes can explain rates of carbon dioxide emission from streams.
The researchers will use the data to develop machine-learning models. The relationships between the organic matter and micro-organisms might not be evident in simpler analysis methods,” Marcarelli explains.
The current work is the start of a much larger project. “We hope to build on the results of this project with a much bigger proposal for a large field project,” she says.
And why is this work important? “Although we, as a field, have studied carbon dioxide production and emission across many different streams, we can only predict a small amount of the variation we see based on environmental characteristics like temperature,” Marcarelli explains. “We think there is an important role of both microbes and organic matter structure that contributes to this variability, and understanding that is important for predicting these emissions in the future and response to global changes like climate and land use change.”
Marcarelli is the director of the Ecosystem Science Center at Michigan Tech.
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Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.