SPARKING NEW INDUSTRY
Blenner is now starting to experiment with a species of yeast, Cutaneotrichosporon oleaginosus, that remains largely unexplored. It has similar properties as Yarrowia lipolytica but has a set of additional capabilities, according to Blenner.
“It grows under a wider range of conditions, it grows faster, it makes more lipids,” he says. “It’s bigger, better, stronger, faster than Yarrowia lipolytica. We’ve even shown it can degrade some of nature’s toughest biopolymers — something called lignin.”
Lignin, the substance that gives trees their strength, ends up as a byproduct of wood-processing with few uses, other than burning it, Blenner says. But it could be possible to engineer Cutaneotrichosporon oleaginosus to turn lignin into omega-3 fatty acids, biofuel or biopolymers.
Blenner took leave from his Clemson duties in fall 2019 to conduct research at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. While his efforts were directed at the stars for a few months, he still had some ideas brewing for his work back in South Carolina.
Blenner says his research has the potential to catalyze a center dedicated to biomanufacturing and synthetic biology, involving a small group of faculty at Clemson already focused on the field.
“I think South Carolina is poised to transform into a microbial-industrial-biotech hub,” he says. “I think all the components are there — the right governmental policies, the workforce. We need some kind of sustained effort to build on the successes we’ve had and catalyze this new industry and industrial growth in the region.”
David Bruce, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, says the quality he likes best about Blenner is that he is forward-thinking:
“Mark Blenner is constantly thinking about how he can do the next experiment, how he can teach his class better, what the students are going to need tomorrow and where the research in the field is going. He’s constantly trying to stay ahead of the game — and that’s impressive.”
INVESTING IN THE NEXT GENERATION
Mark Blenner oversees one of the biggest labs in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences: 16 undergraduates, one master’s student, nine doctoral students and four postdoctoral researchers.
Blenner says that when he works with undergraduates, he tries to be empathetic to their needs and stresses, yet maintain high expectations: “In some places, undergraduates clean glassware in the lab, and that’s all. I want students to feel like they have a purpose and know what their work is going to contribute to the group and the scientific community.”
Blenner’s work with students is also planting the seeds for a more diverse future in chemical engineering. A team he led recruited eight Ph.D. students from groups underrepresented in engineering, including women and African Americans.
Those students are now working toward doctoral degrees in chemical engineering and plan to pursue careers in education and research, with a goal of being role models for others who follow them.
“If you develop six faculty members, you’re making six people who are going to influence about 100 students a year for the next 30 or 40 years,” Blenner says. “The initial investment creates 4,000 engineers for each faculty. You’re basically investing in better preparing the next generation of engineers and scientists.”