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Boise State Researcher Awarded NSF Grant to Demystify Metabolic Processes in Cells

Lisa Warner, an assistant research professor with Boise State’s Biomolecular Research Center, is fascinated by the metabolic pathways found in living systems. These complex networks of chemical reactions convert small molecules – metabolites – into fundamental energy and chemical building blocks, such as proteins, lipids and nucleic acids. However, many of the processes by which cells execute these conversions remain mysterious to researchers.

Warner recently was awarded a two-year, $193,997 grant administered by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, which will allow her to partner with Colorado’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and continue her work researching and demystifying the metabolic process in cells.

“Our goal is to better understand the chemical metabolism that happens in the cell,” Warner explained. “The cells eat the sugars and it’s converted into different products – but it’s like a black box, a sugar goes in and lactic acids come out. How it exactly happens is what we’re trying to find out.”

NSF’s EPSCoR program provides 30 non-tenured researchers across the nation with fellowships that put them in partnership with premier research centers, enhancing their ability to work at the frontiers of science and engineering.

Warner will train a team of graduate and undergraduate students to help her study biomass fermenting bacteria – anaerobic bacteria found in places like mud pots and steam vents or in other extreme environments. These bacteria have been engineered in the lab to break down cellulose found in biomass – like grasses and trees – to convert into either biofuels or to replace chemicals traditionally extracted from petroleum. For instance, lactic acid, which is the building block for biodegradable plastic.

Warner also will be learning how to culture bacteria in an oxygen-free environment from NREL, which is an industry pioneer in the field of culturing, engineering and examining the metabolic processes of anaerobic bacteria.

Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), a device that works similarly to the MRI machines found in hospitals, Warner and her team will be able to observe what is happening during the conversion process inside cells. She and her partners at NREL also will be looking for new ways to improve this process.

“We’re trying to see how we can get their stomachs more efficient at these conversions,” she said. “For instance, these bacteria, when they’re fermenting the biomass, one of the byproducts is CO2. Releasing CO2 is bad for the atmosphere and it’s also a loss of product – we call this a problem with product yield. However, researchers at NREL have found a strain of bacteria that could ‘fix’ CO2 and convert it to a precursor for plastics as well.”

In other words, understanding the pathways within the cells, and combining strains of cultivated bacteria to maximize their best properties, can help researchers design better bacteria.

“Being able to bring this type of biomass fermenting bacteria here, and encourage research in renewable energies will be good for Boise State,” she said. “The technique of NMR, using NMR to look at live cells in real time, not many universities in the world do this – it will put us in the forefront of that type of research.”