Jay Keasling, campus professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory senior faculty scientist, has been named a Distinguished Scientist Fellow by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
Having been a campus and Berkeley Lab faculty member for 29 years, Keasling is receiving the award for his use of synthetic biology to advance renewable energy capabilities and promote the U.S. bioeconomy, according to the DOE’s website. He will receive a $1 million research grant to support further bioenergy and bioproduct innovation.
“He, first of all, is an inspiring scientist and engineer,” said Berkeley Lab Director Michael Witherell. “He has big ideas to do important things with synthetic biology, and he not only has big ideas, but he’s been able to execute several of them.”
The Distinguished Scientist Fellowship is awarded to those who promote “scientific and academic excellence” through collaboration between higher education institutions and national laboratories, according to the fellowship’s nomination and selection guidelines.
Keasling noted that his work focuses on engineering microbes to produce a variety of different chemicals. However, he said he is specifically being awarded for his accomplishments in engineering microbes to create biofuels and other substances that are otherwise produced using petroleum.
“We’ve been engineering bacteria and yeast to produce biofuels from plant biomass,” Keasling said. “Since the biomass plants grow by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, when you burn a fuel that’s made from those plants in your car, it puts the carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere so it has the opportunity to be carbon neutral.”
This technology could be especially significant for climate change mitigation, Keasling added. While biofuels are expensive in comparison to petroleum-based fuels, he said they have the potential to be carbon neutral.
Upon receiving the award, Keasling said he was “thrilled” and surprised. He noted that he will continue to work on engineering microbes as a fellow.
“We’ll be doing some really new things using computational protein design to design new enzymes to produce chemicals that are not natural that might be good biofuels and also good plastic replacements that will be environmentally friendly,” Keasling said.
Both Witherell and Robert Haushalter, a research scientist at Berkeley Lab, said Keasling has played a role in training the next generation of biotech scientists and engineers. According to Witherell, Keasling has helped local high school and undergraduate students gain firsthand lab experience to develop the skills necessary to work in biotech.
Haushalter added that there isn’t “anyone more deserving for the award,” and commended the work that Keasling has done in his lab.
“There’s been a lot of great technology to come out of his lab for biofuels and biomaterials, bioproducts — a lot of the things the DOE is interested in producing,” Haushalter said. “I’m glad the award comes with funding to pursue even more projects and hire more great folks into the lab.”