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Nov. 20, 2018

Cheryl Kerfeld: Inspired by nature

Nov. 20, 2018

Cheryl Kerfeld is the Hannah Distinguished Professor of Structural Bioengineering in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Photosynthesis is the process that captures sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make the energy-rich molecules that power life on this planet. It’s an ancient process, and scientists today are increasing our knowledge of its workings and using that knowledge as a foundation to bio-engineer new applications that can benefit humanity.

My lab at Michigan State University specifically studies photosynthetic processes in cyanobacteria, tiny organisms that are found all over the planet. Cyanobacteria, through their photosynthetic work, are responsible for one out of every three breaths we take, and they are so productive that we see them as great inspiration for new applications.

My research specifically focuses on two critical processes in cyanobacterial photosynthesis: We study the structure, function and assembly of microcompartments that serve as miniature factories in which carbon atoms are bonded together to make sugar using energy that was ultimately captured from sunlight. If the process of bonding atoms together in the factory can’t keep up with the amount of energy coming in when there is too much sunlight for example — another process, called photoprotection (that we also study) — kicks in. This prevents the excess light energy from ‘burning the cyanobacteria out.’

I got involved with both of these mechanisms years ago, by trying to learn — to see — the atomic level structures of key players in these processes. The structures provided the cornerstones for building up each of these fields of scientific inquiry.

At Michigan State University, we have the platforms, the technologies and the intellectual environment that helps us to take the knowledge of these processes and use it as inspiration for bio-engineering applications that will help find sustainable answers to questions of food and fuel security. At the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory, where my lab is housed, several laboratories are exploring the fundamentals of photosynthesis.

We are taking that fundamental knowledge and using it to tailor photosynthetic components to help improve agricultural yields, to design cutting-edge medical tools and to provide sustainable resources for industrial applications.

Here’s one example: Isoprene is a molecule that is used in industry to make rubber. Currently, rubber is typically produced by petroleum-demanding process. 

Right across the hall from us at the PRL, the lab of Thomas Sharkey studies the basics of how isoprene is naturally made in plants. Our labs have joined forces to attempt to create an artificial, sustainable isoprene production system inside bacteria. This is how we envision it working: We will repurpose the microcompartment factories from sugar producers into isoprene producers by inserting a different assembly line — the enzymes Tom studies that are responsible for making isoprene.

The system is artificial because there are no natural microcompartment factories for making rubber molecules. However, the system is inspired by nature because we are using naturally occurring building blocks and putting them together in a new way. 

This is just one example out of many where we are exploring how to move towards bio-based production systems inspired by nature. Being able to even conceive of such a project requires a deep knowledge base and diverse scientific approaches: bioinformatics, biochemistry, molecular biology and structural biology, to name a few.  From this combination of people, resources and MSU collaborative spirit, emerges the uncommon will to develop sustainable bio-based technologies for the common good. 

Read more about Kerfeld's work