Creating the blueprints for new biofuels – Q&A with Tim Donohue

This is a featured lab as part of the Metabolism Initiative.

Earlier this month, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) received another major boost from the U.S. Department of Energy, receiving more than $250 million to conduct another five years of groundbreaking work on alternative fuels.

We connected recently with GLBRC Director Tim Donohue, UW–Madison professor of bacteriology, for our Morgridge Institute Five Questions series on major Wisconsin labs focused on metabolism.

What is the focus of your lab?

We study the metabolic lifestyles of bacteria using a combination of genomic, genetic, and biochemical techniques. Our center draws on the expertise of biologists, chemists, engineers and economists, and we employ more than 400 researchers, students and staff conducting foundational bioenergy research.

What are some of the current mysteries in your research area?

In one set of studies we are trying to understand what controls the production of bacterial lipids. In another set of studies, we are mining genomes to understand how bacteria depolymerize complex aromatic polymers that are present at high levels in plant cell walls. In both of these areas, we are fascinated by some of the novel chemistry involved in these pathways.

What are the societal or human health implications of your work?

We hope to use the results of our studies to develop new microbial strategies to produce compounds that are useful to industry. In particular, we are interested in replacing fuels and chemicals currently derived from petroleum with bio-based fuels and chemicals. We hope to do this by using new microbial chassis that can produce bio-based fuels and chemicals when fed renewable chemicals present in plant extracts or other organic waste streams.

What triggered your initial excitement for working in the metabolism field?

I have been fascinated by metabolism since I was a graduate student almost 40 years ago now. The history of the planet and its inhabitants depends on microbial metabolism and so does our day-to-day existence. In fact, microbes have been doing novel and important chemistry much longer than humans. Even 40 years ago, it was clear that microbes had evolved some interesting ways to accomplish difficult tasks, such as solar energy capture, carbon dioxide and nitrogen fixation, or hydrogen production, to name a few. And now, with the genomics revolution, I think we are poised for a renaissance period for the study of metabolism. We have lenses and tools to understand metabolic pathways that simply didn’t exist when I fell in love with this area.

What are some likely future directions for your lab?

We want to continue to use microbial genomic blueprints to unravel previously un-described metabolic activities of living systems, from single organisms in culture to complex communities of microbes. I hope to help enable a future where we can mine metabolic pathways to better understand the molecular basis of living systems, and develop bio-based methods to produce compounds of interest to the energy, agriculture, biotechnology, environmental, and medical communities.