MSU researcher Yan "Susie" Liu focuses on taking bio-processes and technology from the lab to the marketplace.
February 14, 2017 - Author: Cameron Rudolph
Food and energy are two of the most controversial topics around the world today, with policy debates dominating the political arena and captivating the public. Differences of opinion abound, but one thing is certain: As the world population balloons, more food and energy will be consumed. Therefore, sustainable methods of food and energy production need to be realized.
Much of the energy angst centers on the economics of fossil fuels. There are a host of concerns that cite issues such as job security for the industry or the upfront costs of moving to renewable energy systems. Abandoning fossil fuels altogether is unrealistic in the short term, but what if these production approaches could be supplemented by bioprocesses?
Most people have heard about biofuels. They constitute a burgeoning industry valued at more than $168 billion per year. Less is known about bioprocesses, the sustainable production techniques used to create products such as biopesticides, enzymes and organic chemicals. Yan “Susie” Liu, an associate professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at Michigan State University (MSU), has devoted her career to taking bioprocesses and technology from the lab to the marketplace.
She explained that finding long-term food and energy sources, as well as solving other production challenges, is a big problem that could be answered in part by something very small — microbes.
“My research focuses on bridging the gap between process operation and system engineering,” Liu said. “Microbes have enormous genetic capabilities and represent endless possibilities to sustainably produce some of the most essential elements of our human existence.
“It’s also important to take environmental science into account. My research group has the ultimate ambition of developing sustainable production systems that are transferrable to high-value commercial applications, whether that’s helping on farms for crop production or producing biofuels.”
Over the past five years, Liu has created an industrial biotechnology group at MSU that works with food-based carbon sources to develop bioproducts and non-food carbon sources for chemical production. The products are cultivated on three microbial platforms: fungi, algae or mixed-culture (fungi and bacteria) systems.
Fungi have long been used to generate antibiotics, enzymes and plant growth regulators, but Liu has applied a selected, robust fungal strain to the production of biodiesel. Her work was featured in the Journal of Biotechnology and Bioengineering. A fuel quality analysis lauded the biodiesel as a viable alternative to regular diesel.
In addition to food and energy, Liu’s research addresses concerns surrounding environmental harm and climate change.
“The work we’re doing is extremely valuable on a number of fronts,” Liu said. “It touches so many important topics. A growing world population will go through more food and energy, so it’s crucial that we find ways to increase our production. But we need to keep in mind that it’s also important that we’re lessening the negative environmental effects.”
Algae are a popular material for biofuel and biochemical development, but some of the processes can use resources inefficiently and have damaging environmental impacts. Liu and her group have worked to advance a more efficient hydrolysis process that creates less waste and preserves resources for potential reuse.
To best utilize natural resources throughout the processes, Liu’s research has focused on water conservation. Fermentation, for example, is a biological process that consumes water and creates waste, so Liu and her team have engineered a mechanism to reclaim and reuse the wastewater.
Liu indicated that the reclaimed wastewater has been implemented in the lab for algal and fungal cultivation with no negative impacts. Liu credits a strong collaboration among scientists, industry groups and funding agencies — both nationally and internationally — for helping her team accomplish significant research breakthroughs.
“We couldn’t make the progress we have without the support of our partners over the last five years,” Liu said. “Our research group is becoming a leader in the field of industrial biotechnology. Our work will continue to be important to gaining a greater understanding of how we can be better stewards of our natural resources while also increasing production of the goods and services we need.”