April 6-7, 2017 | Lincoln, Nebraska
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2017 NRIC speakers
portrait of Jay Keasling


Dr. Jay Keasling
University of California, Berkeley
Advanced Fuels from Advanced Plants
12:55 - 1:35 pm, Friday 7 April 2017
Today, carbon-rich fossil fuels, primarily oil, coal and natural gas, provide 85% of the energy consumed in the United States. As world demand increases, oil reserves may become rapidly depleted. Fossil fuel use increases CO2 emissions and raises the risk of global warming. The high-energy content of liquid hydrocarbon fuels makes them the preferred energy source for all modes of transportation. In the US alone, transportation consumes around 13.8 million barrels of oil per day and generates over 0.5 gigatons of carbon per year. This release of greenhouse gases has spurred research into alternative, non-fossil energy sources. Among the options (nuclear, concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass), only biomass has the potential to provide a high-energy-content transportation fuel. Biomass is a renewable resource that can be converted into carbon-neutral transportation fuels. Currently, biofuels such as ethanol are produced largely from grains, but there is a large, untapped resource (estimated at more than a billion tons per year) of plant biomass that could be utilized as a renewable, domestic source of liquid fuels. Well-established processes convert the starch content of the grain into sugars that can be fermented to ethanol. The energy efficiency of starch-based biofuels is however not optimal, while plant cell walls (lignocellulose) represents a huge untapped source of energy. Plant-derived biomass contains cellulose, which is more difficult to convert to sugars, hemicellulose, which contains a diversity of carbohydrates that have to be efficiently degraded by microorganisms to fuels, and lignin, which is recalcitrant to degradation and prevents cost-effective fermentation. The development of cost-effective and energy-efficient processes to transform lignocellulosic biomass into fuels is hampered by significant roadblocks, including the lack of specifically developed energy crops, the difficulty in separating biomass components, low activity of enzymes used to deconstruct biomass, and the inhibitory effect of fuels and processing byproducts on organisms responsible for producing fuels from biomass monomers. We are using the latest advances in synthetic biology to engineer plants, enzymes, and microorganisms to more efficiently produce fuels from plant biomass and thereby lower the cost and improve their sustainability. Specifically, we have engineered plants to alter their biomass composition, including lignin length and content, cellulose and hemicellulose content, and functionalization of hemicellulose. In the area of biomass deconstruction, we have developed methods to cleanly and efficiently extract sugars from the plant material. Finally, we have engineered the metabolism of platform hosts (Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae) for production of advanced biofuels, hydrocarbons that can directly replace gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Large-scale production of these fuels will reduce our dependence on petroleum and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, while allowing us to take advantage of our current transportation infrastructure.
Jay Keasling is the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, senior faculty scientist and Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Chief Executive Officer of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI). Dr. Keasling’s research focuses on the metabolic engineering of microorganisms for degradation of environmental contaminants or for environmentally friendly synthesis of drugs, chemicals, and fuels. He received a B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Nebraska and M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and did post-doctoral research in biochemistry at Stanford University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors. Dr. Keasling has won numerous awards, including the Innovator Award – Biosciences from the Economist Magazine in 2014, the Eni Renewable Energy Prize from Eni S.p.A. in 2014, the George Washington Carver Award for Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology from the Biotechnology Industry Organization in 2013, the Promega Biotechnology Research Award from the American Society for Microbiology in 2013, the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment from the Heinz Family Foundation in 2012, International Metabolic Engineering Award from the Metabolic Engineering Society in 2012, Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, the Inaugural Biotech Humanitarian Award from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in 2009, Scientist of the Year from Discover Magazine in 2006, and the Technology Pioneer Award from the World Economic Forum in 2005. Dr. Keasling is the founder of Amyris, LS9, and Lygos.