José Avalos on designing microorganisms for new applications in energy, health and the environment

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

José Avalos is an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, jointly appointed with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. His interests lie in the use of biotechnology to address important issues in sustainable energy, the environment, industry, and human health. Avalos’ research focuses specifically on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering for the production of biofuels and bio-derived chemicals.

In the spring semester 2015 Avalos taught a new course, CBE 418/ENE 418: Fundamentals of Biofuels, which he designed. In addition to dealing with the technical aspects of biofuel production, the course engages students by exploring issues of land use, competition with food production, and the environmental, economic, and societal impacts of biofuels.

What are the practical applications of your research?
I’m interested in designing microorganisms for many applications. They can be used in the production of advanced biofuels, chemicals and plastics currently derived from petroleum, and specialty chemicals like drugs and drug precursors. The ultimate goal is to facilitate production of molecules that are difficult or very expensive to produce through synthetic chemistry, or that are environmentally damaging to produce from petroleum, or to extract from plants. Engineered microorganisms are also used in bioremediation to degrade and remove contaminants from the environment.

What techniques do you employ in the lab?
I use metabolic engineering, mitochondrial engineering, biosensors, genetic circuits, systems biology, structural biology, and protein engineering. These techniques are challenging for many different reasons. Sometimes it requires introducing genes from various organisms into the engineered microbe, and have them all work in concert. Sometimes genes from the microbial host interfere or compete with the genes we introduced, so we need to remove these genes without deleterious effect. And in some cases it is challenging because the pathways are not completely known.

How does your work differ from that of other faculty in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering?
My work is motivated by idea that we can use biology to produce things. No other lab on campus uses mitochondrial targeting to engineer cells.

Is our society ready to industrialize biology?
Markets are ready to adopt biology as a way to produce all kinds of things. More and more companies are using this technology to produce chemicals to be used for biodegradable plastics, plastic monomers, commodity chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and food. Many products that are normally made from petroleum can now be made using biomass.

Where does biomass fit in the path to sustainability?
Energy from biomass is the largest component of sustainable energy today. Wind, solar, and all other renewables together, including hydroelectric, don’t match the amount of energy we get from biomass, and it will only keep growing. There is no way to electrify our way out of this for the foreseeable future. Biomass has to be part of the equation for a sustainable future.