The Center of Excellence in Industrial Biotechnology at Penn State has announced a new round of seed grant funding for interdisciplinary research, curricular development, or educational activities in the broad area of industrial biotechnology through its 2020 IMPACT Seed Grant Program. Full-time faculty, staff and students are eligible to apply; the application deadline is Friday, Feb. 7. Funding of up to $25,000 per project is available. In this cycle, total available funding is up to $100,000.

Last year’s seed grants funded projects that ranged from protein purification to biofuels and involved faculty in four different departments spanning three different academic colleges:

– Andrew Zydney, director of the Center of Excellence in Industrial Biotechnology and distinguished professor of chemical engineering, is working on creating a cost-effective protein purification protocol to separate Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9) from RNA. Cas9 is not a commercial product that one can buy in large quantities. “We’re fortunate that we have the CSL Behring Fermentation Facility here, so we can make our own,” Zydney said. “The next step in the process will be to couple the Cas9 to the RNA and look at the purification of these RNA protein complexes from the free RNA.”

– Ming Tien, professor of biochemistry, is researching methods to better access cellulose found in switchgrass for biofuel production. Cellulose is the carbon source of plants, and is encapsulated by lignin, which is insoluble and very difficult for enzymes to access. “We’ve done some preliminary work with bacterial cellulose synthase such that we can create shorter, more accessible cellulose strands,” Tien said.

– Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, co-cultured the cellulose-producing bacteria Gluconacetobacter hansenii with the pullulan producing fungi Aureobasidium pullulans. This was the first time a fungi has been co-cultured with a cellulose-producing bacteria. Bacterial cellulose is biocompatible and has medical applications such as repairing head injuries where the dura that protects your brain has been damaged.

Hetian Hu, a graduate student in in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, holds bacterial cellulose.

Hetian Hu, a graduate student in in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, holds bacterial cellulose.

IMAGE: Penn State

Students from all majors are welcome to apply, although they must partner with a faculty or staff member as principal investigator. Mark Signs and Ashik Sathish, directors of the CSL Behring Fermentation Facility, as well as Zydney, have offered to assist as appropriate. Potential areas of interest could include undergraduate research projects or support for development of online or hands-on educational modules.

Zydney strongly encourages students to think about how industrial biotechnology can fit into their college career.

“Students should get involved with organizations like the Society for Industrial Biotechnology and expand the scope of their experiences,” said Zydney. “From the employer’s point of view, it’s great to interview student candidates who have some hands-on practical experience in our fermentation facility, even if that’s not their long-term career goal.”

Proposals that leverage the capabilities of the CSL Behring Fermentation Facility, provide matching funds to support new industry-funded collaborations, or support graduate/undergraduate students in industrial biotechnology research or educational activities will receive additional favorable consideration.

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