The Daily Californian Online

Professor Receives Award for Fungi Studies

By Sara Johnson
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Category: News > Environment

Professor Louise Glass received the UC Berkeley-based Miller Research Professorship, which will help fund her research on the metabolism of a fungus and its many applications.

Professor N. Louise Glass has a passion for fungi - especially the orange, moldy kind.

"You can tell by all the paraphernalia," she said, gesturing to her office walls, covered in dozens of pictures depicting fungi. Lucky for Glass, her passion just became her full-time job, starting in January of next year.

Glass was awarded the UC Berkeley-based Miller Research Professorship to further her research in developing a computerized model of a fungus' metabolism. The knowledge gained by this model may lead to further understanding of the organisms currently used to break down plants into biofuels.

Glass said her research uses a systems-biology, or holistic, approach to the filamentous fungi Neurospora crassa - an orange fungus commonly found on burnt grass - to understand the metabolic behavior of the fungi.

"Our long-term goal is to understand how Neurospora changes both its intracellular and extracellular metabolism when it meets plant cell wall material," Glass said.

Glass said filamentous fungi like Neurospora have the enzymes to break down plant cell walls, but yeast - needed to ferment sugar or starch into ethanol - does not. This fungus thus helps the process by first breaking down the cell wall.

"If we better understand how Neurospora does it, we will have a better idea to better engineer these industrial strains that currently are used to make these plant cell wall degrading enzymes to make them cheaper and more of them," she said.

The Miller award covers a professor's full salary and benefits for the six-month period and provides a $5,000 research fund, according to Kathryn Day, the chief administrative officer for the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science. Day said the selection committee made the decision on Dec. 6 and the announcement was made in January.

"(Glass has) done great work, and we wanted to give her the chance to focus on her research," said Michael Manga, executive director of the Miller Institute and professor of earth and planetary science.

A key component of this award is collaboration. Glass is working with the Energy Biosciences Institute and researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to develop this model.

Nathan Price, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois, is working on developing the computer model of the fungus based on Glass' research data.

"We are building a simulator for the cell that will take all the components of the cell," Price said. He added that the model will take about a year and a half to complete, and will ultimately be accessible online.

The idea behind the model is to understand how this organism functions so that scientists can better understand how to manipulate similar organisms, especially those generally used in the industrial production of biofuels to break down plant cell walls. With this understanding, scientists could engineer other fungi to "hyper-secrete" particular enzymes for biofuel production, Glass said.

The research focuses on the basic understanding of these organisms rather than the industrial application, Glass said. Understanding the whole organism will allow the scientists to better predict how it reacts to manipulations.

"If you have an increased flux and you realize that it affects another pathway adversely, then you build that into your engineered strain," Glass said. "You can mitigate the negative effects on the other pathway that you might not understand if you manipulated only one pathway."

Jamie Cate, an associate professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology, said in an e-mail that the fungus is a "great model for studying biofuel production" and Glass' project "will open up new areas for understanding."

"I'm really a basic research scientist to understand how these organisms function," Glass said. "The EBI sort of allowed that cross-fertilization to occur between the groups that are more basic-research-oriented and the groups that are more applied."

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