Kevin Solomon - U.S. Department of Energy Career Awardee - Lake Harding Association

Kevin Solomon – U.S. Department of Energy Career Awardee

Kevin Solomon – U.S. Department of Energy Career Awardee

By Micah Moen 0 Comment February 5, 2020

– I’m Kevin Solomon. I’m a professor of agriculture
and biological engineering here at Purdue, and my
lab we study microbes and develop them for industrial processes. My particular domain is about how do we take resources from the farm, how do we convert those into
products that people can use. Unlike other disciplines
that might use metals, or ceramics, or chemicals, the material that I work with is biology. And so, we have to understand
how biological systems work, and then using more classical
engineering techniques we can then reprogram that, reorganize it, put it back together and so
we can get new capabilities. I recently received a Department of Energy Early Career Award to study
how certain classes of microbes degrade plant bi material and to develop new ways to
control and enhance that. Animals and humans, we’re
able to convert food into energy that allows us to grow due to the actions of the
microbes that live in their guts. For example, we have stomach acid that helps break down materials, those nutrients are absorbed and certain microbes can convert them into different vitamins
and so on and so forth. The Department of Energy
is looking at ways to make energy more effective and more widely available. In this case, we’re looking
at how these unique microbes that live in the guts of large herbivores can help us break down
this abundant resource so that we can then convert
them into more valuable fuels and other materials. We feed them things such as
orange peels, corn stover any plant material that we can find. We measure how well they
grow these materials, we look at what they
degrade these materials into and how well they degrade these materials and ultimately we try to figure out what genes are responsible
for this degradation. And so, we need to reverse
engineer their process, we need to understand which
enzymes are made when, how much of those enzymes were made and the sequence that
more effectively degrade these materials. We want these processes
to be applicable anywhere. So we don’t want to make a
solution just for Indiana. We want something that
will work in California, that will work in England,
that will work in Tanzania. Different countries, different regions have different materials
and different organisms have different feed stocks. And so, we study the microbes
from these different organisms so we got giraffes that
might have come from Africa, we’ll have goats that come
from local farms in Indiana and they all have different
microbes in their gut and those different organisms
have different capabilities. And we’re trying to see
what are the commonalities, what are the things
that are most successful across these organisms. Given the biomass generation
capacity of the U.S., if we were able to effectively
leverage all of that material we could probably replace
about a third of the gasoline that we use right now. What I think is really
fascinating about our field is that microbial technologies
have the potential to sustainably replace
many of the products that we take everyday for granted. With the tools we have available to us we can actually modify
the types of compounds they can make and so they’re
actually making medicines such as insulin right now. And so the potential is
theoretically unlimited, we just need to figure out
the most effective strategies to do that.

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