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Photo of Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences.

Bob Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, has been working with University, industry, and government leaders to make Minnesota a biocatalysis hub.

Fermenting revolution: Biocatalysis at the U

By Deane Morrison and Peggy Rinard

From eNews, April 15, 2004

Bob Elde, dean of the U's College of Biological Sciences, believes that the time for biocatalysis is now and the place is Minnesota. "Biocatalysis is in its infancy," he says. "Right now, there isn't a hub for biocatalysis in the U.S. [and] we have a limited opportunity to seize the day and make this our niche in biotechnology. If we don't, another state will beat us to it." Elde has been working with University, industry, and government leaders to bring resources, such as raw materials and academic expertise, together to make Minnesota a center for this new industry. Biocatalysis means using enzymes (naturally occurring or engineered) to catalyze chemical reactions. It's not a new idea. Fermentation, used since ancient times to make bread and wine, is a type of biocatalysis that employs yeast as a catalyst. But advances in scientists' ability to engineer biocatalysts for specific purposes, combined with dwindling oil reserves and the effect of petrochemicals on the environment, have given the approach a new life. While chemical manufacturing often relies on expensive, toxic catalysts and requires huge amounts of energy, biocatalysis relies on natural enzymes and uses far less energy to achieve similar results. Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, an assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biochemistry, is among many University of Minnesota faculty engaged in biocatalysis research and in other fields that support the renewable resources and energy initiative. While Schmidt-Dannert "shuffles" the genes of bacteria to generate new forms of enzymes and biosynthetic pathways for new drug development, Lanny Schmidt, Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering, is focused on fuel cells. He recently led a team of U researchers in creating the first reactor capable of converting ethanol into hydrogen to efficiently power hydrogen fuel cells. (Read the eNews February 19 story, "Hydrogen from renewable sources within reach.")

"Biocatalysis works with nature rather than against it," Elde says. "This is our chance to undo some of the damage petrochemicals have done to the environment and make the world a better place for future generations... "

Then there's Larry Wackett, head of the microbial biochemistry division, and Michael Sadowsky, a soil, water, and climate professor and a member of the U's Biotechnology Institute, who are collaborating on bioremediation and biodegradation research and in using bacteria to clean up the environment. The researchers have developed bacteria that break down atrazine, a herbicide used in agriculture, and they are now using these bacteria to purify drinking water and soils containing atrazine. Elde wants to build on this foundation by recruiting more faculty in a variety of disciplines that support biocatalysis and building a state-of-the-art facility for them to work in. But given the economy, securing resources to do that is challenging, to say the least. He is hopeful, however, that by educating stakeholders about the value of this venture the pieces will fall into place. "Over the past century, benefits from energy and new materials have come at the expense of the environment," Elde says. "Biocatalysis works with nature rather than against it. This is our chance to undo some of the damage petrochemicals have done to the environment and make the world a better place for future generations while strengthening our own economy. There aren't many opportunities that compare to this." To learn more about biocatalysis research at the University of Minnesota, visit the Biotechnology Institute and Biodale. For information about the U's renewable energy initiative, see www/umnedu/iree.

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