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Jonathan Schilling: Then and Now / 2010 Early Career Award Winner

WHAT DID THE 2010 EARLY CAREER AWARD ALLOW YOU TO DO?

When my Early Career grant was awarded, my field - mycology (study of fungi) - was just beginning to use DNA- and RNA-based tools to piece together biology within the fungal kingdom.

My grant aimed to use a newly-sequenced fungal genome (Postia placenta, now Rhodonia placenta) to understand and harness a unique carbohydrate-selective pathway for deconstructing plant biomass. This strategy, known as ‘brown rot,’ was less studied at that time, relative to ‘white rot’ fungi that remove lignin prior to extracting carbohydrates. As research priorities shifted towards depolymerizing carbohydrates found in plant biomass for biofuel production, rather than keeping them intact for papermaking, the biomass deconstruction mechanisms of brown rot fungi became important to industry. Thus, my curiosities blossomed toward application. As an early career scientist, I began to think big – out of the box.

The Early Career funding, along with the support of an excellent management team in the DOE Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research program, catapulted my research. It enabled me to do two key things that are a bit rare in federal funding these days. A five-year allocation, rather than three years, gave me 1) time to dig deep into my work and 2) more room to take calculated risks, specifically for what I call ‘pie in the sky’ objectives.

I had two objectives with high feasibility, but my third objective was higher risk than most grant review panels would likely tolerate. That objective paid the highest rate of return, including a game-changing publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

ABOUT:

Jonathan Schilling is a professor in the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology at the University of Minnesota. He is also the director of the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories in northern Minnesota.

SUPPORTING THE DOE SC MISSION:

The Early Career Award program provides financial support that is foundational to young scientists, freeing them to focus on executing their research goals. The development of outstanding scientists early in their careers is of paramount importance to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. By investing in the next generation of researchers, the Office of Science champions lifelong careers in discovery science. 

For more information, please go to the Early Career Research Program.

THE 2010 PROJECT ABSTRACT:

The aim of this project is to characterize enzymatic mechanisms used by brown rot fungi to degrade woody biomass. The research will examine the enzymatic mechanisms used by Postia placenta, a brown rot fungus, to degrade woody biomass, since this fungus has already "developed" its own solution to the efficient use of lignocellulose for energy production. In particular, the work will address potential spatial partitioning of delignification reactions used by fungi to prepare the wood for digestion from final enzymatic deconstruction of cellulose, a natural analogue to the separate steps used in industrial biomass treatment processes. A combination of physical characterization of partially digested wood samples, microscopic examination of the wood/fungus interface, and analysis of gene expression will be used to address the study questions.

The aim of the work is to provide a new mechanistic understanding of fungal processes that could be used to develop new approaches to consolidated, industrial bioprocessing for biofuels production.

RESOURCES:

Zhang, J., Presley, G.N., Hammel, K.E., Menke, J.R., Hu, D., Ryu, J.S., Orr, G., and Schilling, J.S., “Localizing gene regulation reveals a staggered wood decay mechanism for the brown rot fungus Postia placenta.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113:10968 (2016). [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1608454113]

Kaffenberger, J.T. and Schilling, J.S., “Comparing lignocellulose physiochemistry after decomposition by brown rot fungi with distinct evolutionary origins.” Environmental Microbiology 17(12):4885 (2015). [DOI:10.1111/1462-2920.12615]

Schilling, J.S., Duncan, S.M., Presley, G.N., Filley, T.R., Jurgens, J.A., and Blanchette, R.A., “Colocalizing incipient reactions in wood degraded by the brown rot fungus Postia placenta.” International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation 83:56 (2013). [DOI:10.1016/j.ibiod.2013.04.006]

 

Additional profiles of the 2010 Early Career Award winners can be found at: https://www.energy.gov/science/listings/early-career-program

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://www.energy.gov/science/office-science.

Sandra Allen McLean is a Communications Specialist in the Office of Science, sandra.mclean@science.doe.gov.