RICHLAND — A WSU Tri-Cities student and former intern at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory earned top honors for research that could help scientists use fungi to make chemicals used in plastic and fuels at the recent U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 Science and Energy Research Challenge Poster Competition held recently in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
 
Kristen Meyer, a WSU Tri-Cities science major, received the award for research this summer as an intern at PNNL, operated by Battelle for DOE. The junior worked in the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory (BSEL) on the WSU Tri-Cities campus, home to PNNL scientists and the WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy. DOE’s Office of the Biomass Program funded Meyer’s research under the guidance of molecular biologist Kenneth S. Bruno in PNNL’s Fungal Biotechnology group.
 
Placing first in the life sciences division earned Meyer a $3,000 scholarship. She was one of 100 undergraduate interns from various DOE national labs who were invited to participate in the competition.
 
Meyer, 20, graduated from Hanford High School in 2007 while also attending Columbia Basin College through the Running Start program. Her parents are Perry and Lori Meyer of West Richland. Her faculty advisor at WSU Tri-Cities, Kate McAteer, joined Meyer for the trip to Oak Ridge.
 
During her PNNL internship, Meyer dove into the genetics of a black mold commonly found in soil, Aspergillus niger. Her efforts greatly improved the efficiency and speed of lab processes. She worked with Bruno to advance how researchers delete genes from A. niger, a filamentous, or fuzzy, fungus. The work could provide a way to use mold to make plastics and other chemicals from broken-down plant matter, called biomass.
 
A.niger is incredibly efficient at making citric acid, a natural preservative that gives food a sour taste. Bruno and other PNNL scientists want to reproduce that degree of efficiency in other fungi, like Aspergillus terreus, which makes itaconic acid. Itaconic acid has the potential to replace some of the petroleum used in plastic production.
 
To do so, PNNL researchers are trying to find out which of A. niger’s genes are key for the creation of citric acid. But finding, deleting and testing specific genes is usually a tedious process that can take about three weeks for each gene. Bruno, however, learned about a new, time-saving method while attending the Fungal Genetics Conference in March. And Meyer was the perfect person to apply it to A. niger, Bruno said.
 
“Kristen is very detail-oriented,” Bruno said. “Sometimes she’s even able to correct me. You can trust that her research will be precise.”
 
The method includes inserting a marker gene that temporarily prevents the organism from repairing damage to its genome. Meyer then systematically deleted other genes of interest until she found ones that affected A. niger’s citric acid production. That knowledge is quickly helping PNNL researchers determine which genes to study in more depth.
 
Once suspect genes were identified, Meyer easily removed the marker gene, allowing A. niger to operate as usual. Being able to restore the gene with little effort is especially important when working with strains like A. niger. This keeps such strains healthy, allowing researchers to keep samples in working order so they can further study them after target genes are identified.
 
With Meyer’s help, this method dramatically sped up the whole process for A. niger. Instead of being able to delete target genes just 18 percent of the time, the new method does it 95 percent of the time, Bruno said. Now PNNL researchers only need about a week to identify genes, enabling them to study several groups of genes at once.
 
Meyer has proved so valuable in the lab that PNNL and WSU have hired her part-time to do more research in BSEL. In between chemistry classes, she continues to investigate gene deletion and also examines metabolic processes — although she hopes to spend the 2010-2011 academic year studying biomedicine and public health in Ecuador.
 
“My goal is to work in the medical field,” Meyer said. “I want to earn an M.D. and a Ph.D., so that I can do both research and clinical work.”
 
Meyer was one of five former PNNL interns who participated in the competition. Another, Mike Larche, placed third in the energy division, earning him a $1,000 scholarship. Larche, of Pasco, studies physics at Eastern Washington University.
 
For more details on PNNL’s bio-based product research program — such as Meyer’s project — visit http://www.pnl.gov/biobased/ .