Epigenetics conference held in beautiful Grand Cayman

Here in the Wirtz lab, we are beginning to connect physical properties of cells with genetic expression. All cells in a Petri dish of the same cell type supposedly have identical DNA sequences. But what makes the cells appear to have different shapes and sizes, and why do some cells respond to stimuli differently from others?

Lectures by poolside are the way to go. Photo by Allison Chambliss.

Lectures by poolside are the way to go. Photo by Allison Chambliss.

These questions have led us to epigenetics, the study of inheritable changes in gene activity that do not involve any changes in the genetic code. These changes most often include the modification of DNA and histones, proteins found in nuclei that the DNA is wound around, by addition or subtraction of functional groups (acetylation, methylation, etc.).

The modifications affect how “open” or “closed” the DNA is and therefore define when and where transcription of DNA to make proteins can occur. I recently attended a fascinating conference on the subject which just so happened to be held on the gorgeous Grand Cayman Island. Here I summarized a few of the conference talks for Epigenie, a science news site focused on epigenetics research.

Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Beach breakfast. Photo by Allison Chambliss

Beach breakfast. Photo by Allison Chambliss

My summer internship at Novozymes

Over this past summer, I had the opportunity to complete a 3-month internship with a biotechnology company near Raleigh, North Carolina. Novozymes, headquartered in Denmark, produces some microorganisms and biopharmaceutical ingredients, but their main focus is the production of enzymes for industrial use. These enzymes go to customers in the household care, food and beverage, and bioenergy industries, to name a few. Some of Novozymes’ customers you may be familiar with include Procter & Gamble (Tide laundry detergent), Nabisco (Ritz crackers), and Anheuser Busch. My summer was spent in the Research & Development department working with enzymes for biofuel production.

The corn-to-ethanol process consists of two main stages. Briefly, corn is ground, and an alpha-amylase enzyme is added to solubilize and start to break down the starch. This stage, called liquefaction, takes approximately two hours. Next, in the fermentation stage, starch is broken down further with a glucoamylase enzyme and is fermented into ethanol using yeast over the course of two to three days. Ethanol is then used as a gasoline supplement; it can increase octane rating and improve vehicle emissions.

My first task as a Novozymes intern consisted of an internal assay development project seeking to increase the throughput of corn fermentation enzyme screenings. Novozymes is planning to purchase a new liquid-handler robot to automate and quicken the lab-scale fermentation process as they test which enzyme blends can obtain the best ethanol yields. It was my job to optimize parameters such as mixing and venting within the new system and test if it could match results from conventional screening methods.

A separate project that I focused on during the second half of the summer involved a joint effort between the Research & Development and Technical Solutions departments to formulate new product blends for liquefaction and fermentation of milo, or sorghum, a grain similar to corn. Milo may provide an advantage over corn because it is not a main ingredient in food manufacturing and may help keep grocery prices down. Milo may provide an environmental advantage as well, as it is more tolerant of drought than corn crops and requires less water. This project was especially interesting in that I was able to experience some of the business applications side of research and development. In formulating new product blends, our team had to keep in mind what process conditions and enzyme prices potential customers would be willing to agree with.

Everyone at Novozymes was extremely friendly and willing to help. The internship program at the Franklinton, North Carolina location, which houses the company’s North American headquarters, is fairly large, so I was able to meet about 20 other interns at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels. The People & Organization department (a.k.a Human Resources) organized a networking lunch with site managers as well as a career prep workshop and resume review. We also attended a Carolina Mudcats baseball game, and an ice cream truck came around the work site to give out free ice cream every few weeks! Of course, there was always enough Carolina barbeque and sweet tea to go around.

Overall, my Novozymes internship was a well-rounded, enjoyable, and valuable experience. In addition to the Franklinton site, Novozymes operates in Virginia, California, Nebraska, and all over the world. The company offers internship and co-op positions at many of these locations. If you are interested, I highly recommended checking out their career site for available opportunities!

Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Lindau 2013: Mingling with Nobel Laureates

During the first week of July 2013, 34 science Nobel Prize winners congregated on the island of Lindau, Germany to meet and mentor the next generation of leading researchers. 625 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students from 78 countries were invited to attend this exclusive meeting. I was very lucky to be among them!

The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting has been held annually since 1951 and rotates among the Nobel Prize categories of chemistry, physics, physiology and medicine, and economics. This year’s meeting was devoted to chemistry. The Lindau Mediatheque is a great resource for meeting lectures, abstracts, and programs. The database lists all of this year’s attending Laureates, along with the years and disciplines in which they won the Nobel Prize.

U.S. researchers explore the island city of Lindau, Germany.

U.S. researchers explore the island city of Lindau, Germany.

Conference mornings were spent in widely-attended and inspiring lectures by the Laureates, while the afternoons involved break-out sessions where we could asks the Laureates our questions in a more intimate setting. I learned the processes through which many of the Nobel-prize winning discoveries were made and where some of the Laureates were when they received the infamous phone call informing them that they had been awarded the Prize. The conference’s U.S. delegation consisted of approximately 70 graduate students, and our organizing partner, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, was able to score us some great additional interaction opportunities with a few of the Laureates. We had our own dinner parties arranged with Brian Kobilka (Chemistry, 2012) and Steven Chu (Physics, 1997, and former U.S. Secretary of Energy). I had the pleasure of sitting next to Akira Suzuki (Chemistry, 2010) during an extravagant international get-together dinner sponsored by the Republic of Korea.

A panel of Nobel Laureates and scientists discusses the importance of communication in science. Speaking in this photo is Ada Yonath (far left), who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for her studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

A panel of Nobel Laureates and scientists discusses the importance of communication in science. Speaking in this photo is Ada Yonath (far left), who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for her studies on the structure and function of the ribosome.

The Laureates were treated like celebrities on the island of Lindau. They were each gifted their own luxury car for the week, and personal drivers shuttled them between conference events. Students vied for their pictures and autographs like they were rock stars! My favorite day of the conference incorporated a boat trip to Mainau, another German island in Lake Constance. The scenic two hour sail on a giant cruise ship included food, drink, and even dancing with the Laureates and their spouses. Once on the island of Mainau, we toured spectacular gardens and enjoyed an authentic Bavarian lunch.

From meeting science “superstars” to networking with students from around the globe and exploring a beautiful island city, I can’t speak highly enough of the remarkable experience. For information about how to apply to be a part of the U.S. delegation for the 2014 Lindau Meeting, which will focus on physiology and medicine, visit http://www.orau.org/lindau/.

Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.