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Career & Employment

December 12, 2005
Volume 83, Number 50
pp. 39–41

Genomics And Clean Energy

Developing biotechnology area is attracting more than just biologists; there's a place for chemists, too

Susan R. Morrissey

Most of the time when people talk about genomics research, they assume that the work involves pharmaceuticals or other biomedical research. After all, with the success of the National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Project (HGP), researchers have access to genetic codes that can unlock the mysteries of human biology and diseases.

But genomics is more than just a window into human health. It's also enabling researchers to begin to tackle some challenging energy and environmental issues such as fossil fuel dependence and pollution. To help foster research in this new industrial biotechnology area, the Department of Energy launched a three-phase program in August.

The program, Genomes to Life Roadmap: Systems Biology for Energy & Environment, includes strategies for cleaner energy production, environmental remediation, and carbon cycling and sequestration. The heart of DOE's road map is understanding how microbial genomes relate to their function. The goal is to use microbial capabilities to address the identified energy and environmental issues.

"Much as [HGP] stimulated the growth of a biomedical biotechnology industry, the research laid out in this road map will spur growth in a new industrial biotechnology sector," Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said in a news release. "Microbes can be used for processes and products that can serve as an engine for economic competitiveness in the 21st century."

Prior DOE support has led to the genetic sequencing of about 200 microbes related to the energy and environmental missions of the agency. These single-celled organisms have modest-sized genomes of on average 4 to 5 million bases; the human genome, in comparison, has about 3 billion bases. The Genomes to Life (GTL) Roadmap builds on this prior work, with researchers using genomics data to study biological processes of microbials as a whole-a field of study known as systems biology.

DOE Image

Big Guns DOE is using instruments like the mass spectrometer pictured here to further research in areas of clean energy, bioremediation, and carbon cycling and sequestration.

The applications of the research supported by the GTL program have the potential to spawn a "fairly significant" revolution in the industrial biotechnology sector, explains Aristides A. N. Patrinos, director of the Biological & Environmental Research Office at DOE. As with any emerging area, Patrinos notes, this growth includes new and expanding job opportunities, which until now have been just a niche in the overall sector.

It's a very exciting time to be involved in genomics, Patrinos notes. One area that he is particularly bullish about is the development of biofuels to reduce petroleum imports required to meet the U.S. transportation sector's needs. "In the clean-energy/biofuels/cellulose-to-ethanol proposal that we are putting forward, there is a possibility of a huge expansion of jobs over the next 20 to 30 years," he says, adding that the opportunities will be especially focused in the economically depressed Midwest.

"Maybe two years ago, people would have said I was dreaming, but today, with the increase in cost of oil and the growing competition from China and the rest of the developing world, the notion that we can grow biomass for our transportation fuels is not far-fetched," Patrinos points out. He explains that Brazil, for example, now meets essentially all of its transportation fuel needs domestically, thanks to a big commitment to biofuels based on sugarcane.

In the U.S., Patrinos says, some companies are seriously contemplating starting biofuel programs. "You can see the stirrings in the marketplace," he notes. "Even conventional oil companies see the need to diversify," he points out.

Although Patrinos says he does not see any fatal flaws in the cellulose-to-ethanol process, he points out that more basic research needs to be done. To that end, he says that most of the employment opportunities exist at national labs (like those supported by DOE), universities, and not-for-profit institutions, with only a small demand for scientists in industrial settings.

But, as Patrinos notes, there are some industrial job opportunities. These opportunities are primarily at small companies, which are bringing clean-energy-related biotechnology to the market.

GreenFuel Technologies is one company that is using biotechnology to turn atmospheric pollutants-namely CO2 and NOx-into renewable biofuels. Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the company markets its conversion system to power plants and industrial facilities.

"The ???engine' in the GreenFuel emissions-to-biofuels process is algae," explains John (Jack) Lewnard, vice president of process development at GreenFuel. He notes that a major conclusion from previous work was that optimizing the algae to maximize photosynthetic productivity holds great promise. The area is one that the GTL program is investing in.

Renewable biofuels are also a focus of South Bend, Ind.-based Valley Research. The company supplies animal-, plant-, and microbe-derived enzymes and works with other companies to develop applications for these enzymes in areas such as biofuels.

"The use of enzymes is fundamental in the biofuels process to convert various starch raw materials into the sugars necessary for ethanol fermentation," says Jack Harris, director of research at Valley Research. "The improvement in the characteristics and performance of the new generation of enzymes has allowed for the development of new production processes that reduce chemical usage and costs for the fuel ethanol producers, while at the same time increasing ethanol yields," he explains. He credits modern molecular biology-which uses genomics and proteomics-for these developments.

With companies like GreenFuel and Valley Research already established and conventional oil companies developing biofuel research and development programs, opportunities for positions in the industrial workforce are likely to grow.

Courtesy of GreenFuel

Model GreenFuel's R&D team discuses operational parameters for its advanced module, which demonstrates the company's emissions-to-biofuels conversions.

"I can easily extrapolate from where we are right now to an industrial-scale operation," Patrinos says. "I'm reasonably confident that the breakthroughs described in GTL and other systems biology initiatives have a natural extension into the industrial world," he explains, adding that these applications will be carried out by private-sector entities that will need to hire scientists to take the basic research and translate it into the needed technologies.

For those scientists and engineers interested in working in this developing area, Patrinos says that it is important to have a good foundation in both biological and computational science. Biology is important because the research deals with biological processes, while computer science will be essential to manage, analyze, and transform the resulting information into accurate models. Having a strong background in these areas will go a long way in helping interested individuals do well in this field, he notes.

In addition, he advises those interested in pursuing a career in industrial biotechnology to enrich their background and expertise in engineering-especially chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering. "In their careers, people in this field will be expected to know at least enough about these areas-biology, computer sciences, and engineering-to understand the lingo and read the papers," he explains.

To help GTL achieve its goals, however, Patrinos notes that people with a range of scientific backgrounds also are needed. Following the groundwork laid by NIH's HGP, he says, DOE's program is stressing a team approach and is pulling in scientists from disciplines outside of biology.

"If you look at HGP in terms of its principal proponents and its scientists, they are all over the place with respect to scientific background-for example from physics, engineering, computer science, and chemistry," Patrinos explains. He notes that the novelty of GTL will also pull people from a range of disciplines.

Underscoring Patrinos' point, Lewnard says: "Biofuels are really getting attention now, and the area needs multidisciplinary people with many skills. Engineers with an intersection of skills such as biology, process scale-up, and controls will be critical for commercializing emerging processes."

One example of where chemists and other nonbiological scientists can play a role is in analysis studies. "We are reaching out to use each and every one of the physical science tools that we can get our hands on," he notes. Examples of the tools DOE is using include mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, and synchrotron radiation sources.

Scientists with chemical science backgrounds will also be important to producing new enzyme products that can be used in biofuels applications to improve costs and ethanol yield, Harris says. "While microbiology and molecular biology are instrumental in discovering and evolving new enzymes, traditional sciences such as biochemistry, chemistry, and chemical engineering remain critical to the economic production of commercially viable enzyme products," Harris explains.

As for education level, both Lewnard and Harris agree that a doctoral degree is not a requirement. "A Ph.D. is certainly helpful in R&D; however, it's not mandatory, and there are many opportunities that don't require one," Lewnard points out. "Perhaps only two of the six positions we are likely to fill in the next six months will require a Ph.D.," he says.

Likewise, Harris notes that only some of Valley Research's R&D workforce employees hold advanced degrees. "We currently have three Ph.D.s and two master's degree holders in our laboratory staff of 12," he says. He adds that they are currently looking for B.S.-level scientists to join their staff.

But just having the required scientific background will not get you a job. "Technical skills and education credentials are really just the minimum requirements," Lewnard explains. "When we look at candidates, we look for strong correlation to our immediate needs, but we also consider how well they fit in the future of our organization," he says.

"People skills and teamwork are very important," Lewnard says, noting that "tight deadlines, close collaborations, and a lot of customer interface are part of everyone's job." Another key attribute GreenFuel looks for is flexibility because, as he says, "all start-ups require long hours and evolving roles."

As with GreenFuel, positions at Valley Research require more than just a science degree, Harris notes. "Young scientists need good writing and communication skills," Harris says. He notes that for scientists whose primary language is not English, it is essential to learn the language well, both for working in the laboratory and for dealing with customers.

"There is a growing recognition that new energy and environmental solutions are required," Lewnard notes. And for scientists and engineers interested in this area, "the timing is right to get involved," he says.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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