Wednesday, January 3, 2024
Congratulations to Professor Elizabeth Bess on receiving a NSF CAREER award for her important research on gut microbiota. Please see the title and summary of the award below. Title: CAREER: The human gut as an untapped reservoir for bacteria and enzymes that degrade lignin, a potential sustainable source for critical chemicals Summary: With the support of the Chemistry of Life Processes program in the Division of Chemistry, Professor Elizabeth Bess from the University of California, Irvine, is studying how the human gut microbiota—trillions of bacteria that live in the intestines of people—can be leveraged to produce chemicals essential to the function of society. Such commodity chemicals are typically sourced from fossil fuel, a non-renewable resource. A more sustainable potential feedstock for commodity chemicals is lignin. Lignin is made by plants and is one of Earth’s most abundant and chemically unique polymers. Despite its abundance, efficient methods to convert lignin into useful commodity chemicals are lacking. We propose that the human gut is an untapped reservoir of bacteria that efficiently convert lignin into desirable chemicals. This is because lignin is a component of dietary plants, and intestinal bacteria only have hours to deconstruct dietary lignin during as it transits the intestines. In the proposed project, we will (1) discover bacterial species in the human gut that deconstruct lignin and (2) reveal the chemical products of this process. We will use this research project as an opportunity to engage students from underrepresented groups in scientific inquiry. Specifically, we will implement new experiential-learning programs in which high school and undergraduate students participate in a lignin-rich diet intervention and subsequently examine the impact of diet on their own gut microbiotas. By establishing a personal connection to scientific research, these programs are expected to enhance students’ STEM self-efficacy.