Engineers design metabolic pathways in cells to convert cheap raw materials into useful chemicals, biofuels and pharmaceuticals, but it’s a delicate balance of systems for that to happen.
Fuzhong Zhang, assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, will study these systems with a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year, $605,000 award is for his project titled “Synthetic Regulatory Systems for Dynamic Metabolic Pathways.”
The awards support junior faculty who model the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organization. Zhang is the 21st faculty member in the School of Engineering & Applied Science to receive the award.
Zhang’s research interests focus on applying synthetic biology, protein engineering, systems biology and metabolic engineering approaches to engineer biology. His goal is to create artificial biosystems that nature has not evolved and use them to turn microbial cells into microfactories for the efficient production of biofuels, drugs, materials and other value-added chemicals from sustainable resources. He also is interested in developing similar systems to solve environmental problems and to understand complex biology systems.
Zhang has developed dynamic regulation systems, which are artificial components that provide dynamic control to enzyme and metabolite concentrations within living cells. The NSF grant will allow Zhang to develop a systematic and quantitative understanding of how the dynamic regulation systems change the performance of metabolic pathways and how they improve productivity within the pathways.
The research, which builds on his previous work funded by Washington University’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES), will create knowledge and tools that other engineers and researchers can use to design metabolic control systems for their pathways of interest more effectively and reliably, Zhang says.
“Many of the tools developed from this project also will be useful to perturb natural regulatory networks to study their role in natural pathways,” Zhang said. “Hopefully, that will be able to reveal more evolutionary significance of natural regulatory networks.”
Except for producing useful chemicals and biofuels, Zhang said that dynamic regulation systems could be used to engineer microbes that would perform complex tasks, such as to sense contaminants in the environment, clean them up, then send a signal that all is clear.
As part of the project, Zhang will work with the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University to hold an annual synthetic biology workshop for teachers from local high schools with a large number of students from groups underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. He also will ask those teachers to recommend highly motivated students to work in his lab for a week during the summers.
“The idea is to let high school students get exposed to the research environment earlier in their lives, to encourage them to do research in this field and to apply to university and graduate schools,” he said.
In 2013, Zhang won a Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. He was the first faculty member at Washington University to receive the award, which recognizes an elite group of scientists early in their careers at research universities. The same year, he also won a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
Zhang completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California-Berkeley and the Joint Bioenergy Institute after earning a doctorate from the University of Toronto. He earned a master’s degree from McMaster University and a bachelor’s degree from Peking University.
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