Chemical Engineering professor Michelle O'Malley was awarded a 2016 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for her bioengineering research, genetic engineering inspired by the humble fungi living in the gut of large, grass-eating herbivores.
What makes anaerobic gut fungi a fascinting subject for research is their ability to digest lignocellulose, a substance found in plants that is abundant but often seen as a waste by-product because of the chemical difficulty of cellulose breakdown. O'Malley and her lab work on genetic and cellular engineering of these anerobic fungi, engineering synthetic fungal biocatalysts, as well as other areas of bioengineering that deal with cell membrane proteins.
The microbes "eat up pollutants, or degrade non-food parts of plants into renewable chemicals," said O'Malley. "We can metabolically engineer these microorganisms to make fuels, chemicals, and even pharmaceutical compounds."
"These are really old, ancient microbes that nature has engineered for this purpose," she added.
Watch our interview with Assistant Professor O'Malley about collaborative research at UCSB, working with single-celled microbes, and changing the bad rap of microorganisms.
In addition to the PECASE award, O'Malley received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2016 for "Designing Synthetic Communities for Bioproduction." The proposal will received more than $800,000 in funding over five years to explore how microbial communities have the potential to help solve some of today's most pressing challenges.