Prof Jens Nielsen is the Editor-in-Chief of FEMS Yeast Research and is based at the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. He recently received the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences Gold Medal, the ENI award for Energy Frontiers and the Eric and Sheila Samson Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation in Alternative Fuels for Transportation in recognition of his innovative research on metabolic engineering, systems biology and synthetic biology. It has been a fantastic year for microbial-based sustainable fuel research and we caught up with Jens to chat more about his research.
Could you describe your science journey in getting to where you are today?
“I am a chemical engineer of training, but during my PhD study I worked on development of mathematical models to describe growth and product formation of lactic acid bacteria, and this got me interested in microbial physiology. Following my PhD study, I started to study the metabolism of the filamentous fungus Penicillium chrysogenum that is used for penicillin production. Hereby I got interested in using mathematical models to study metabolism, and this has been the common theme of my research career: to study and engineer metabolism of living cells.
Early in my career I worked closely with industry, and it was very inspiring for me to get an understanding about the needs for developing industrial processes based on microbial fermentation. I have, therefore, throughout my career maintained a close relationship with many international companies, and this has resulted in that much of our research has been translated for industrial use, something that I find rewarding. This has, however, also enabled me to understand the business sufficiently well to establish spin-out companies that have developed new biotech processes based on our research work. Over the years the mathematical models used to study the metabolism of microbial cells have advanced significantly and today these models are finding wide use for design of novel microbial fermentation processes.
In my research group, we have used these models to design and develop new yeast cell factories for production of a wide range of chemicals, that can be used as biofuels, chemicals, nutraceuticals, food ingredients and pharmaceuticals. Even though I throughout my career have worked with many different industrial cell factories, we have in the last 10-15 years focussed more and more on Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This is because this organism is both a fantastic model organism for studying eukaryal cellular physiology and a widely used cell factory. Hereby we can combine basic research on microbial physiology with applied research. This has even led us to begin to study human metabolism using the same type of models, and hereby we have identified new biomarkers for different metabolic diseases such as cancer and fatty liver disease. The use of mathematical models to study living cells is today referred to as systems biology, and the design and development of cell factories is generally referred to as metabolic engineering. In both systems biology and metabolic engineering we use many tools developed in synthetic biology, and today my research is in these three areas.”
What is the importance of your research?
“Our research can assist to solve two of grand societal challenges:
- global warming and associated climate change
- establishment of a more sustainable health care sector.
By developing novel cell factories we can facilitate the establishment of sustainable production of fuels and chemicals, and hereby assist with the development of a fossil free society. Our engineering calculations have shown that production of hydrocarbons from biomass using yeast can result in a significant reduction in green-house gas emissions, but it has also been shown by others that such biofuels can result in a significant reduction in particle emission from jet engines and diesel trucks, and hence reduce pollution resulting in global warming.
Our work on engineering yeast metabolism will, however, also allow us to produce new chemicals that can be used for production of materials or as new pharmaceuticals. At the same time the use of our metabolic models for studying human diseases has enabled identification of novel biomarkers for different metabolic diseases, including cancer. These biomarkers can assist in better diagnosis as well as for patient stratification and hereby improved disease treatment.”
How do you see your work impacting the field of microbiology in the future?
“I hope our work can be an inspiration for young people to study microbiology and hereby assist with advancing the use of microbes for production of fuels, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Education of students, both at undergraduate and graduate level is among the most rewarding parts of my job, and it is with joy I follow how many former students in my group have developed into excellent scientists, both working in academia and industry.
I think my largest contribution to the field of microbiology in the future will be through the education of more students and post-docs in how studying and engineering the metabolism of microbial cells is both academically stimulating and highly relevant for our advancing our society.”
To keep updated on all new cutting-edge developments in yeast from leaders in the field, head to FEMS Yeast Research – the yeast community journal. You can learn about the role of FEMS Yeast Research in supporting the yeast community within the rapidly changing scientific publishing landscape in Jens’ most recent editorial.
If you would like to learn more about the sustainable production of fuels and chemicals from cell factories, there is a new Thematic Issue on Yeast Cell Factories for you to explore.