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Michelle Chang: Pathways to Next-Gen Fuel

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Recommended by: Drew Endy, Stanford University

When Michelle Chang was considering what to do for her postdoc, she realized that it might be more interesting to study how enzymes function in living cells. So she joined Jay Keasling's lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Chang, who did her graduate work in mechanistic enzymology, says that "in metabolic engineering, we try to translate and ask how enzymes and catalysts work in vivo instead."

Now in her own lab at Berkeley, Chang's work to make molecules is informed by how they are made in nature. "Natural systems have really solved some of the most long-standing problems in medicine, materials, and energy — like how do photons and CO2 make molecules and things that chemists want to do?" she says. In particular, Chang is studying fluorine biochemistry for drug design, directional sensing in bacteria for biomagnet production, and flux pathways for the development of next-generation biofuels.

Publication of note

In a Nature Chemical Biology paper published earlier this year, Chang's lab reported its development of a pathway to make the second-generation biofuel butanol. Using that pathway, the researchers were able to produce high titers of the fuel.

And the Nobel goes to…

Chang says that if she were to win the Nobel Prize, she hopes it would be for understanding metabolic networks and how that informs cells' phenotypic differences. "To understand the relationship between genome sequence and phenotype in terms of chemistry because in the end, as a chemist, we think that everything is related back to chemistry," she adds.

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