Investigators at Bond LSC take steps to apply basic research
By Cara Penquite | Bond LSC
Scribbling in a lab notebook and planning experiments tucked between shelves of equipment, it’s easy to fixate on day-to-day lab operations. But scientists also face the challenge of finding how research can improve the world around us.
“The direction, the vision of the lab, ultimately comes from the principal investigator that bridges the research into applied directions,” said Jay Thelen, biochemistry professor and Bond LSC principal investigator
Despite the focus on basic research within the Bond LSC, many principal investigators choose to take their research to the next level with commercial partnerships.
Thelen’s lab researches ways to increase oil production in seeds and has three patents licensed to Yield 10 Bioscience, a sustainable crop innovation company who applies Thelen’s research to commercial crops. While seed oils like canola and soybean oil are known for their use in cooking, Thelen explains that increased production of these oils could play a larger role in sustainable fuel sources such as biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel.
“We have to make more oil to balance out our need to eat it [and] our need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels,” Thelen said. “To do that, we need to either plant more acres of oil seeds, or we have to raise the oil in existing oil seeds.”
Thelen researches enzymes with that potential application in mind. One is acetyl-CoA carboxylase, the enzyme which initializes the production of fatty acid chains found in plant oils.
“We’ve known this is an important enzyme, and we know that any tinkering you do with it has an impact on the oil production,” Thelen said. “In this case we’ve made new discoveries that permitted us to rationally engineer this enzyme to make it more active.”
Thelen suggests thinking of the enzyme as a “gatekeeper” to oil production which initializes the production of fatty acids and increases oil production. Thelen’s lab identified two different gene families that influence the activity of the enzyme in Arabidopsis and camelina plants. Yield 10 then applies these discoveries in other commercial plants.
While Thelen works closely with his commercial partner — having served on their scientific advisory board for three years and now stays in contact with Yield 10’s CEO to develop research projects — some labs stick with short-term arrangements.
Kamlendra Singh — assistant director of the Molecular Interactions Core at Bond LSC and Veterinary Pathobiology research assistant professor — studies HIV treatments. His lab identified a compound licensed by a commercial partner that targets the shell containing the virus’ genetic information.
Singh’s work in HIV started in 1994 with basic research investigating the enzyme that makes the viral DNA.
“I wasn’t into [studying] the drugs when I started working on HIV, I was mostly trying to understand how HIV enzymes works,” Singh said. “Once you know how the enzyme works, then you can target these enzymes for discovering the drugs.”
After years of studying how the enzyme works, Singh switched to HIV treatment. The first step to develop a treatment is to look for structures in the virus that the drug could potentially target to stop the viral replication. Singh targeted the shell around the virus’ genetic information known as the HIV capsid.
Building on previous research, Singh’s lab developed a compound able to bind the HIV capsid and prevent it from releasing the contained genetic information. Even with the licensing of his compound, Singh plans to continue researching ways to improve it.
“There are two reasons to keep working on it. One, well it’s my brainchild,” Singh said. “The second reason is as the company grows, we grow. We get more recognition and more funding. You can use it to [study] different viruses or use the same funding to improve upon it.”
While Singh plans to remain looking towards the applied side of his HIV research, he does not forget his roots in basic research.
“You have to put in time … [to] understand the system first, which is basic science, before you go to applied science,” Singh said.
Michael Roberts, a Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of animal sciences and biochemistry who has had several patented projects, focuses on improving basic science projects and applies for patents if warranted.
“I don’t deliberately go into anything for commercial purposes,” Roberts said. “If I see something that I think does have commercial application, I’m happy to do it, but that is usually after you do [basic sciences].”
Whether starting a project with applications in mind or focusing on basic research, knowledge gained through research can be building blocks for the future.
“Science is simple. Even the most applied research project has its genesis in basic biology and basic research,” Thelen said.
Read more about how MU research leads to patents, inventions and licensing at https://research.missouri.edu/news/leveraging-mizzou-discoveries.