GLBRC's Conversion Research Area


Research team achieves concentrated stream of sugars, cost savings

GLBRC Conversion research aims to increase the quantity, diversity, and efficiency of energy products derived from plant biomass. Researchers focus on improving biological and chemical methods to convert plant material into advanced biofuels or valuable chemicals that can replace petroleum. Basic research discoveries that enhance the efficiency and sustainability of biomass conversion can break down barriers to developing economically viable biofuels technologies.

Conversion Leadership

Scientific Director, Conversion Lead

Landick is an expert on structure, function and regulation of RNA polymerase, the central engine of gene expression. His work spans disciplines from single-molecule biochemistry to genome-scale mechanisms of gene regulation, and includes devising the first single-molecule observation of nucleic...

Conversion Lead

Hegg’s research team focuses on the variety of ways that nature uses metals to activate and/or produce small molecules such as O2, H2, NO, and H2O2.  In pursuit of this goal, his lab utilizes a combination of mechanistic enzymology, molecular...

Project Overview

Stacks of petri dishes in the Currie Lab

Within the Conversion group, researchers apply a combination of synthetic biology, directed evolution, systems biology, and computational modeling approaches to accelerate the rate and yield of microbial conversion of biomass to fuels. Microbial efforts focus on well-established models and biofuel-producing organisms to identify key genes and pathways that may illuminate opportunities for strain improvement. Chemical routes focus on direct catalytic conversion of biomass-derived sugars and lignin into liquid transportation fuels and/or high-value chemicals.

Specific Conversion projects fall in three categories:

  • Engineering microbe strains to enhance stress tolerance and improve conversion efficiency of sugars to biofuels
  • Developing flexible routes to biofuel production that can be adapted to diverse biomass feedstocks
  • Producing light-driven and lignin-derived advanced biofuels, and using catalytic conversion to convert biomass to biofuels and value-added chemicals


Conversion Publications

Towards coordinated international support of core data resources for the life sciences

Warwick Anderson; Rolf Apweiler; Alex Bateman; Guntram A. Bauer; Helen Berman; Judith A. Blake; Niklas Blomberg; Stephen K. Burley; Guy Cochrane; Valentina Di Francesco; Timothy J. Donohue; Christine Durinx; Alfred Game; Eric Green; Takashi Gojobori; Peter Goodhand; Ada Hamosh; Henning Hermjakob; Minoru Kanehisa; Robert Kiley; Johanna McEntyre; Rowan McKibbin; Satoru Miyano; Barbara Pauly; Norbert Perrimon; Mark A. Ragan; Geoffrey Richards; Yik-Ying Teo; Monte Westerfield; Eric Westhof; Paul F. Lasko

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On November 18-19, 2016, the Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) hosted a meeting of senior managers of key data resources and leaders of several major funding organizations to discuss the challenges associated with sustaining biological and biomedical (i.e., life sciences) data resources and associated infrastructure. A strong consensus emerged from the group that core data resources for the life sciences should be supported through a coordinated international effort(s) that better ensure long-term sustainability and that appropriately align funding with scientific impact. Ideally, funding for such data resources should allow for access at no charge, as is presently the usual (and preferred) mechanism. Below, the rationale for this vision is described, and some important considerations for developing a new international funding model to support core data resources for the life sciences are presented.

In silico whole genome sequencer and analyzer (iWGS): a computational pipeline to guide the design and analysis of de novo genome sequencing studies

Xioafan Zhou; David Peris; Jacek Kominek; Cletus P. Kurtzman; Chris T. Hittinger; Antonis Rokas

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The availability of genomes across the tree of life is highly biased toward vertebrates, pathogens, human disease models, and organisms with relatively small and simple genomes. Recent progress in genomics has enabled the de novo decoding of the genome of virtually any organism, greatly expanding its potential for understanding the biology and evolution of the full spectrum of biodiversity. The increasing diversity of sequencing technologies, assays, and de novo assembly algorithms have augmented the complexity of de novo genome sequencing projects in non-model organisms. To reduce the costs and challenges in de novo genome sequencing projects and streamline their experimental design and analysis, we developed iWGS (in silico Whole Genome Sequencer and Analyzer), an automated pipeline for guiding the choice of appropriate sequencing strategy and assembly protocols. iWGS seamlessly integrates the four key steps of a de novo genome sequencing project: data generation (through simulation), data quality control, de novo assembly, and assembly evaluation and validation. The last three steps can also be applied to the analysis of real data. iWGS is designed to enable the user to have great flexibility in testing the range of experimental designs available for genome sequencing projects, and supports all major sequencing technologies and popular assembly tools. Three case studies illustrate how iWGS can guide the design of de novo genome sequencing projects and evaluate the performance of a wide variety of user-specified sequencing strategies and assembly protocols on genomes of differing architectures. iWGS, along with a detailed documentation, is freely available at

Lactobacillus casei as a biocatalyst for biofuel production

Elena Vinay-Lara; Song Wang; Lina Bai; Ekkarat Phrommao; Jeff R. Broadbent; James L. Steele

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Microbial fermentation of sugars from plant biomass to alcohols represents an alternative to petroleum-based fuels. The optimal biocatalyst for such fermentations needs to overcome hurdles such as high concentrations of alcohols and toxic compounds. Lactic acid bacteria, especially lactobacilli, have high innate alcohol tolerance and are remarkably adaptive to harsh environments. This study assessed the potential of five Lactobacillus casei strains as biocatalysts for alcohol production. L. casei 12A was selected based upon its innate alcohol tolerance, high transformation efficiency and ability to utilize plant-derived carbohydrates. A 12A derivative engineered to produce ethanol (L. casei E1) was compared to two other bacterial biocatalysts. Maximal growth rate, maximal optical density and ethanol production were determined under conditions similar to those present during alcohol production from lignocellulosic feedstocks. L. casei E1 exhibited higher innate alcohol tolerance, better growth in the presence of corn stover hydrolysate stressors, and resulted in higher ethanol yields.

Zymomonas mobilis as a model system for production of biofuels and biochemicals

Shihui Yang; Qiang Fei; Yaoping Zhang; Lydia M. Contreras; Sagar M. Utturkar; Steven D. Brown; Michael E. Himmel; Min Zhang

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Zymomonas mobilis is a natural ethanologen with many desirable industrial biocatalyst characteristics. In this review, we will discuss work to develop Z. mobilis as a model system for biofuel production from the perspectives of substrate utilization, development for industrial robustness, potential product spectrum, strain evaluation and fermentation strategies. This review also encompasses perspectives related to classical genetic tools and emerging technologies in this context.

An engineered solvent system for sugar production from lignocellulosic biomass using biomass derived γ-valerolactone

Ali Hussain Motagamwala; Wangyun Won; Christos T. Maravelias; James A. Dumesic

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γ-Valerolactone (GVL) is a biomass-derived solvent which completely solubilizes all fractions of lignocellulosic biomass, leading to the recovery of polysaccharides (cellulose and hemicellulose) as soluble carbohydrates at high yields (>70%) without the use of expensive reagents, like enzymes and ionic liquids. Biological upgrading of carbohydrates to biofuels or bio-based chemicals requires that the carbohydrates are separated from GVL. We demonstrate that an engineered solvent system consisting of GVL, water and an organic co-solvent is mono-phasic at the temperatures used for biomass fractionation (e.g., 160 °C) and is bi-phasic at lower temperatures (e.g., room temperature). The advantage of using this engineered solvent system is that the carbohydrates are spontaneously separated from organic solvent components into an aqueous hydrolysate stream, thereby avoiding the need for expensive and potentially hazardous separation processes, such as operation at elevated pressures required for separation using liquid CO2. We also show that the organic co-solvent can be selected from an array of organic components, leading to a trade-off between the efficacy of carbohydrate separation and the ‘greenness’ of the solvent. We show further that toluene is a promising co-solvent component, and techno-economic analyses of the process, wherein toluene is used as a co-solvent, lead to a minimum selling price of ethanol of $3.10 per gallon of gasoline equivalent.