Engineering Bacteria to Solve Problems in Renewable Chemical Production and Human Health


Wednesday, October 25, 2023 - 9:00am


Engr II 1519


Assistant Professor Benjamin M. Woolston - Northeastern University

Abstract: The synthetic biology revolution has given us the ability to genetically reprogram microbes to serve a wide variety of purposes, from miniscule chemical factories that orchestrate exquisitely selective enzymatic pathways to produce fuels, pharmaceuticals and polymers from simple raw materials, to biological computers that can sense their chemical environment and implement complex decision-making algorithms. The overall goal of the Woolston lab is to harness this potential for applications in renewable energy production and the human gut microbiota. This talk will present an overview of the two major current thrusts of the lab: In the first, we are engineering anaerobic bacteria (both single-species and consortia) for the conversion of renewable single-carbon feedstocks to biofuels, taking advantage of a number of economic and ethical benefits of using these substrates compared to 1 st and 2 nd generation biofuel efforts. In the second, we are developing engineered microbes that can sense and modulate the levels of disease-associated metabolites in the human gut, with an initial focus on hydrogen sulfide; a toxic, volatile molecule implicated in the onset of IBD and colorectal cancer. As well as the exciting applied potential of the resultant technology, these efforts provide us with model systems with which to ask broader fundamental questions about microbial metabolism, using a range of experimental (e.g 13 C isotopic tracer analysis) and computational (e.g. flux balance analysis) approaches.

Bio: Dr. Woolston joined the NEU Chemical Engineering department as an Assistant Professor in January 2020. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Dr. Woolston received his PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2017 from MIT under the guidance of Prof. Greg Stephanopoulos, where his research focused on the development of genetic tools to enable metabolic engineering in anaerobic CO 2 -fixing microbes. His Post-doctoral work was conducted in the laboratory of Prof. Emily Balskus in the Chemistry & Chemical Biology department at Harvard University, where he studied microbial metabolic pathways and enzymes that contribute to the stability of health-associated Lactobacilli in the human vaginal microbiota. At Northeastern, his research program – currently funded by the DOE and NIH, combines approaches from his previous research training in metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, biochemistry and microbiology to engineer microbes for biofuel & biochemical production, and as diagnostics and therapeutics in the Human gut microbiota. His work has been recognized through a range of awards, including the 2020 International Metabolic Engineering Society Jay Bailey Young Investigator Award, the 2021 Biotechnology and Bioengineering Daniel IC Wang Young Investigator Award, and more recently an NIH NIBIB Trailblazer Award in 2022. Since joining NEU, Dr. Woolston has taught the Biochemical Engineering senior elective the graduate course in Kinetics & Reactor. Outside the lab he is an avid tennis player and triathlete, completing his first Ironman at Lake Placid in 2018.

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