Biologist Collaborates on Hydrocarbon Research

Date: 10-08-2009

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs
Gordon Wolfe
Biological Sciences

Gordon Wolfe, a professor of biological sciences at California State University, Chico, is part of a team that has been funded by the Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) within the National Science Foundation to unlock the power of biocatalysts. Jacqueline V. Shanks of Iowa State University (ISU) heads the research team that includes Basil Nikolau and Tom Bobik of Iowa State and Govind Nadathur of the University of Puerto Rico, in addition to Wolfe.

Wolfe’s share of the grant is $300,000, which will fund research by graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to Wolfe.

The project, “Bioengineering a System for the Direct Production of Biological Hydrocarbons for Biofuels,” will allow researchers to explore what genes and mechanisms are behind the natural production of hydrocarbons by plants, insects and algae and how they may be successfully integrated into a host organism.

“Currently, scientists see many options to producing sustainable fuels, and we don’t know if solutions will come from crops, forests or aquatic plants, so we need to explore all options,” said Wolfe. “The research team is being led by Iowa State University researchers who focus on hydrocarbons from crops like corn. I and Govind Nadatur will provide expertise in algal hydrocarbons.”

This project will allow Wolfe to extend prior research into a type of marine algae that is best known as the main calcifying organism on the planet, but which also makes unusual hydrocarbon lipids. He has been studying the production of these hydrocarbons and helping decipher the genome of this important organism and has suggested to other researchers in the field that these lipids might have useful biofuel properties.

With support from the proposal, Wolfe will continue to work on understanding the genetic and molecular process of the formation of these hydrocarbons, using ISU’s state-of-the-art center for genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. These areas focus on understanding the integrated activities of complex cells, such as control and regulation of biosynthetic pathways.

“My work is still basic science, trying to understand the enzymes and cellular machinery behind the production of these hydrocarbons,” said Wolfe. “Potentially, this could be used to engineer cells that pump out hydrocarbons for biofuels, but that would take a great deal of additional work.”

The grant is funded by an NSF program to merge engineering and science to help produce solutions for society’s problems, and, is, in Wolfe’s understanding, partially funded by stimulus money.

“This work fits well into the University’s sustainability focus, as well as my interest in applying knowledge of microbial processes to solving problems like energy production,” said Wolfe. “The individual co-investigators on the project will visit each other’s laboratories to collaborate, but each of us will work separately.”

The NSF has funded 20 Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grants for 2009, totaling $39,991,202 over four years to 94 investigators from 27 institutions. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

The nonprofit CSU, Chico Research Foundation, incorporated in 1997 as an auxiliary to the University, manages more than 600 grant and contract accounts each year, many staffed by student and faculty researchers.