Graduate Seminar: Kristala L. Jones Prather
Kristala L. Jones Prather
Associate Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Modular Pathway Design for Synthesis of Biofuels and Biochemicals
The growing interest in a “biomass-based” economy has led to new efforts to construct and improve microorganisms capable of producing chemicals. The current focus is largely on liquid biofuels; however, a successful “biorefinery” is likely to be a mixed-product facility, with many compounds produced from one or more biomass-derived feeds. Identifying methods for the production of both novel biofuels and “value-added” compounds is both a challenge and an opportunity. The potential for biological conversion of feedstocks to bulk chemicals is enhanced by the availability of tools and techniques from the established discipline of Metabolic Engineering, which has enjoyed tremendous successes in the development of highly productive microorganisms for a variety of products of interest. We can also gain insights from Biocatalysis, where the choice of enzymes to mediate biotransformation of chemical substrates is based largely on consideration of the required functional group conversion without being limited by prior evidence of transformation of the full structure. Our group is interested in applying principles from each of these intellectual arenas towards the design and construction of novel biosynthetic pathways for specified target compounds. Using this approach we have developed a novel pathway towards a compound with no identified natural source, 3-hydroxy-g-butyrolactone. We have also explored the ability to modify existing pathways for the production of unnatural products. In this case, a particular challenge emerges towards the functional assembly of multi-step pathways in heterologous hosts, namely, the ability to evaluate and subsequently diagnose limitations in individual elements of the pathway in vivo. We have developed a modularization approach that enables the implementation of bypasses at several intermediate stages in order to identify bottlenecks that would not be revealed through in vitro studies of enzyme activities. This bypass strategy also leads to an ability to produce multiple products from metabolic engineering of a single pathway.
Kristala Jones Prather is the Theodore T. Miller Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and an investigator in the multi-institutional Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) funded by the National Science Foundation (USA). She received an S.B. degree from MIT in 1994 and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley (1999), and worked 4 years in BioProcess Research and Development at the Merck Research Labs (Rahway, NJ). She is the recipient of a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation New Faculty Award (2004), an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award (2005), a Technology Review “TR35” Young Innovator Award (2007), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2010), and the Biochemical Engineering Journal Young Investigator Award (2011). Prather has been recognized for excellence in teaching with the C. Michael Mohr Outstanding Faculty Award for Undergraduate Teaching in the Dept. of Chemical Engineering (2006) and the MIT School of Engineering Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching (2010).