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Josh Michener: Engineering evolution for better microbes

Working backwards has moved Josh Michener’s research far forward as he uses evolution and genetics to engineer microbes for better conversion of plants into biofuels and biochemicals.

In his work for the BioEnergy Science Center at ORNL, for instance, “we’ve gotten good at engineering microbes that will make biofuels of interest, but it’s generally been in the production of smaller amounts,” Josh said. “The challenge now is to move that proof of principle forward to make a lot of the biofuel so it’s a more economically viable process. Those last steps are much harder, and it’s where evolutionary engineering can lend a hand.”

Using evolution as a biological engineering tool is the subject of Josh’s Wigner Fellowship in the Biosciences Division. The work involves identifying mutations in microbes that better perform a specific task and then figuring out what’s different and how to enhance the trait. “At BESC, we’re working with microbes that break down plant lignin. So we want microbes that grow really well when we feed them lignin. Evolution is great at helping things survive and reproduce more effectively,” he said.

The method is in contrast to rational engineering, where you take a problem and then engineer a solution, he noted. “For evolution to work, we need a pathway to already be working—so we can go from a little bit of activity to a lot of activity. You can’t use evolutionary methods to go from nothing to something. What you can do, though, is to find solutions to problems that you didn’t even know existed.”

In fact, Josh’s first journal publication as a senior author, currently in press, focuses on pathways that microbes use to break down lignin.

Josh arrived at the lab as a Wigner Fellow in June 2015. Prior to his time here, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. He earned his Ph.D. in biological engineering from the California Institute of Technology and his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and biology from MIT. Along the way, he also conducted research at Stanford University and at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Biology runs in Josh’s family. Everyone in his immediate family earned an undergraduate degree in the subject, he noted. His father became a physician and his mother a nutritionist with a Ph.D. in education. Of growing up in his hometown of Durham, N.C., Josh said, “I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in science.”

He first heard about the opportunity to work at ORNL after meeting Biosciences Division Director Tony Palumbo at a synthetic biology conference, who encouraged him to apply for a fellowship at the lab.

Josh praised the collaborative nature of his work at ORNL. “My expertise is not on the biochemical side. So I need collaborators and have found them here—experts in proteomics who can study the changes in protein expressions between different strains of microbes,” for instance, he said.

“I’ve also found better work-life balance here at the lab than in academia,” Josh said.

When he does have time away from the lab, Josh and his wife have been tackling some landscaping projects on a home they recently purchased in Oak Ridge. “It’s mind-blowing to realize that the back porch of our house in Oak Ridge is bigger than our entire apartment in Boston,” he laughed.

Josh expects that the work he is conducting in evolutionary engineering at ORNL will lay the foundation for a lifetime of research, and he deliberately chose a field in which he would be a pathfinder. “In my Wigner work, I’m already seeing it. I’m establishing new techniques to apply these approaches to a whole range of problems. It’s a lot of high-risk and high-reward research, but once I develop new techniques, this can continue to be my bread-and-butter going forward.”

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