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by Doug Le

Presently, the world population is highly dependent on fossil fuels which provide up to 85% of the energy used in the US alone. The US Department of Energy is a large proponent of finding alternative fuel sources that will replace our demand for fossil fuels and has funded laboratories across the nation to pursue research in this field, one of which is the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, CA. JBEI’s mission is to make biofuels in a renewable and sustainable fashion, thereby making it a superior alternative to fossil fuels.

My research was in the Deconstruction division of JBEI, and the group I worked for sought to isolate and identify bacteria that secrete the enzyme cellulase. All living material (biomass) eventually decomposes through the action of bacteria, which use enzymes to catalyze the decomposition of biomass into fermentable sugars, which in turn can be converted into biofuels. Cellulase converts cellulose into glucose, and while the plentiful and sustainable supply of cellulose throughout the world makes it a very appealing starting material for biofuels, the difficulty in actually deconstructing cellulose has proven to be a challenge. Our procedure began with enriching a sample of compost with varying amounts and types of cellulose, screening the isolates from these enrichments for cellulase activity through a Congo Red Assay, and identifying the bacteria through a 16S rRNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR). By the end of the summer, ten strains from three different genera were identified as having appreciable cellulase. These strains can now undergo further study in JBEI to check for their effectiveness in the biofuel synthesis process.

Beyond being a researcher, I also doubled as a CalTeach intern. I served as a teaching assistant for JBEI's Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology program (iCLEM). This program hires 8 high school students from around East Bay Area as interns to participate in the same exact research that I did this summer, except in a more structured format reminiscent of a project-based class. Working side by side, we worked hard on the project and actually participated in our first poster session/research presentation at the end of the summer. The students (and I as well) take pride in knowing that our contributions to this research are both real and significant.