What Biofuel Production Can Learn from the Zoo: Michelle A. O’Malley

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Michelle O’Malley, University of California, Santa Barbara, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Photo courtesy of Sonia Fernandez

Michelle O'Malley, University of California, Santa Barbara, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Once a year or so, Michelle O'Malley or one of her students drives to the Santa Barbara Zoo to grab samples of manure from goats, sheep, or other grazing animals. These smelly bundles contain fungal colonies and other microbes that digested grasses in the herbivore's gut. By isolating and studying these grass-digesting microbes, O'Malley is discovering how they break grasses into sugars, and the results are enabling new bioengineering approaches to biofuels.

So far, the assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has discovered novel strains of fungi in the oxygen-free intestinal tracts. These fungi grow tendrils that invade the digesting material and secrete enzymes that turn the plant matter into sugars. The sugars feed the fungi, and they also feed the host. The sugars also could be building blocks for fuels that power cars and cool homes. O'Malley and her team devised a way to identify the enzymes using genetics. She's discovered numerous enzymes of interest to the biofuels community.

But she's not stopping there. Fungi and microbes tend to avoid multitasking. They do one job well, such as spitting out sugars. She's leading efforts to create microbial consortia, where the microbes would work together to turn biomass into the desired fuels — by dividing difficult tasks across microbes.

She works closely with her students and postdoctoral scholars. "I work with a great group," says O'Malley. "Their efforts have led to early breakthroughs that enable us to tackle this difficult research area."

Her research and mentoring earned the assistant professor the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to researchers early in their careers. O'Malley was nominated for the award by the Biological and Environmental Research Office in DOE's Office of Science.

O'Malley received her education on the East Coast before moving west. At Carnegie Mellon University, she earned two bachelor's degrees. At the University of Delaware, she earned a doctorate in chemical engineering. She went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since joining UCSB in 2012, she's earned honors including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a DOE Office Early Career Research Award, and recognition one of the top 35 Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review.

O'Malley received the PECASE award in a DOE ceremony on May 4.

The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic energy 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 http://science.energy.gov.

Kristin Manke is a Communications Specialist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on detail to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, kristin.manke@science.doe.gov.