Seminar: “Metabolic Engineering Strategies for Producing Oleochemicals in Bacteria” by Brian F Pfleger

Finding a sustainable alternative for today’s petrochemical industry is a major challenge facing chemical engineers and society at large. To be sustainable, routes for converting carbon dioxide and light into organic compounds for use as both fuels and chemical building blocks must be identified, understood, and engineered. Advances in metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, and other bioengineering disciplines have expanded the scope of what can be produced in a living organism. As in other engineering disciplines, synthetic biologists want to apply a general understanding of science (e.g. microbiology, biochemistry) to construct complex systems from well-characterized parts (e.g. DNA, protein). Once novel synthetic biological systems (e.g. enzymes for biofuel synthesis) are constructed, they must be engineered to function inside evolving cells without negatively impacting the host’s physiology.

In this talk, Pfleger will describe pathways for producing chemicals derived from fatty-acids and how his group and others have improved oleochemical production in microbes. The talk will describe the critical regulatory points in native fatty acid metabolism, strategies for deregulating flux, and alternatives that by-pass it altogether. Pfleger will highlight the use of heterologous plant enzymes to alter the chain length distribution of products from common long-chain molecules to higher-value medium-chain analogs as well as strategies used to produce medium-chain fatty alcohols, the highest value compounds in the class, through engineering of thioesterase and thiolase driven pathways. The seminar will conclude with commentary on the remaining barriers to commercializing these technologies and areas where further research investment could prove fruitful.


photo portrait of Brian PflegerBrian Pfleger received his bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University in 2000 and earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2005 from the University of California-Berkeley. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan from 2005-2007. Brian is the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at UW-Madison with an appointment in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program. His research group uses systems and synthetic biology approaches to develop biocatalysts for production of small molecules. Brian’s research has been recognized with young investigator awards from 3M, NSF (CAREER), DOE (Early Career), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR-YIP), Biotechnology and Bioengineering (Daniel IC Wang Award), the Society of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, the American Chemical Society BIOT Division (2018 YI Award), and Purdue University (Mellichamp lectureship). Brian also received the Benjamin Smith Reynolds teaching award from the UW-Madison College of Engineering for his efforts to introduce undergraduates to biotechnology.

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