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People Spotlight: Jaehwan Kim ’18 bioengineered yeast strains for sustainable production of chemicals

April 16, 2018

By Nicki Loo

Jaehwan Kim ’18 spent the summer working with José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, on a bioengineering project, sponsored by the Andlinger Center’s summer internship program. Video by Greta Shum.

Jaehwan Kim ’18 is a senior majoring in chemistry who spent last summer as an intern at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University using cutting-edge bioengineering tools to modify different yeast species for the sustainable production of biofuels, bioplastics, chemicals, and drugs. Kim worked with José Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

“Bioengineering… it just sounds really cool and kind of mysterious,” he said. “Or it sounded mysterious to me before I came in to this lab.”

Yeast is a promising source for the production of biofuels and other important chemicals because these microbes are cheap, plentiful, relatively easy to grow, do not compete with land for growing food, and are not damaging to the environment, said Kim. Products derived from bioengineered yeast can replace chemicals, such as gasoline or jet fuel, commodity chemicals derived from petroleum, and specialty chemicals for the pharmaceutical industry, which are currently costly or environmentally damaging to extract. Many important chemicals used in drug manufacturing come from rainforests, which are already under immense pressure from loggers. Making these chemicals in the lab with yeast would help ease this pressure, Kim said. Kim’s specific research involved modifying yeast strains by splicing them with different genes in order for them to grow rapidly and to be used in the future for the sustainable production of these different chemicals.

Kim said he learned many different skills through the Andlinger Center’s summer internship program, which he believes will help him be better equipped to work in similar fields.

“The idea of mixing metabolic engineering and product formation is something that I have wanted to try, and this project was the closest project I got to learning tools and skills most closely related to my interest,” he said. “It was really fun. I love the fact I got the opportunity to work here.”

Kim said he was motivated to join Avalos’ lab because it combined bioengineering with finding sustainable solutions to help the planet.

“If we can find a way to produce these compounds in sustainable yields, which is what this project is working towards at least, then we wouldn’t have to be so destructive,” he said.

More on the summer internship program:

Over the summer of 2017, six undergraduates embarked on energy and environmental research that ranged from charging devices wirelessly with solar energy to developing biofuels from yeast at the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment at Princeton University.

The Peter B. Lewis Fund for Student Innovation in Energy and the Environment and the Dede T. Bartlett P03 Fund for Student Research in Energy and the Environment, which are administered by the Andlinger Center, funded five summer internship projects by theses six students.

This past summer’s students were selected for their excellent academic record and the promising potential of their research in helping secure the world’s energy and environmental future. The selected students received a $4,000 stipend for the summer research and up to an additional $4,000 for research-related expenses. Information on students and projects from past years can be found here.

Greta Shum and Sharon Adarlo contributed to this article.