Written by Paul Alongi
Gov. Henry McMaster is honoring a Clemson University associate professor who has won international acclaim for engineering yeast in research that could help humankind reach Mars, develop new drugs and search for nuclear weapons production.
Mark Blenner, the McQueen Quattlebaum Associate Professor, has received a 2020 Young Scientist Award for Excellence in Scientific Research. The award recognizes his contributions to research and teaching.
Blenner, a member of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is the eighth Clemson faculty member in 10 years to win a Governor’s Award.
All but one were in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at the time of their awards.
“This is an award I’ve seen a lot of outstanding Clemson faculty win, and I’m honored to be on that level,” Blenner said.
Blenner, who joined Clemson in 2012, has raised $10 million from a variety of federal and industry sources to fund his research.
His work in engineering yeast has a wide range of potential.
It could, for example, help astronauts make omega-3 nutritional supplements they could take to stay healthy during the long trip to Mars. Yeast could also be engineered to create biopolymer PHA, a type of polyester that astronauts could feed into a 3D printer to make tools.
Blenner is also using the single-celled fungi to explore new ways of developing drugs and creating sensors that would help search for radiation from nuclear weapons production.
Much of his work has focused on a species of yeast, Yarrowia lipolytica. But his team has begun to explore another species, Cutaneotrichosporon oleaginosus, that remains largely unexplored and shows promise for turning lignin, a byproduct of wood-processing, into omega-3 fatty acids, biofuel or biopolymers.
Blenner has published 28 peer-reviewed papers and three other papers, including one that was the most read article in ACS Synthetic Biology in 2016-17. Two of his articles are classified by the Institute for Scientific Information as “highly cited,” a designation reserved for the top 1% of articles in each journal.
Blenner’s work has been extensively covered in the popular press, including stories in The Washington Post, The Guardian and BBC World News. He wrote a blog post for Scientific American, and an episode of “SciShow Space” featuring his work has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
It’s the latest in a string of accolades for Blenner, capped in summer 2019 with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for researchers early in their careers.
Blenner has excelled at involving his students in prestigious programs, including the Beckman Scholars Program, the U.S. Education Department’s Graduate Assistance for Areas of National Need and the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program.
“The most meaningful part of this award is that it recognizes that I’ve educated a lot of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers,” Blenner said. “Some stay in South Carolina, and some have gone elsewhere and are representing the state well. They show the high-quality of human capital the state has to offer.”
Previous Governor’s Award winners from Clemson over the past 10 years include John Ballato and Apparao Rao (both 2014), who received the Award for Excellence in Scientific Research. Laine Mears (2011), Brian Powell (2014) and Srikanth Pilla (2018) have received the Young Scientist Award for Excellence in Scientific Research. Joshua Summers (2012) and Barbara Speziale (2010) have won the Award for Excellence in Scientific Awareness.
Governor’s Awards are jointly sponsored by the Governor’s Office and the South Carolina Academy of Sciences.