July 11, 2019
Ever since she started working on her doctorate, Elke Nevoigt has been studying yeasts. They are robust, easy to handle, and versatile: “simply a wonderful organism for laboratory research,” the scientist enthuses. Her working group at Jacobs University is playing an international leading role in yeast research. The 52-year-old scientist is also keen on these microorganisms because they provide a bridge between the traditional use of baker’s yeast for generating products such as bread, wine, and beer, and modern “white” biotechnology for the sustainable industrial production of chemicals and fuels from renewable raw materials.
Environmental protection and the conservation of resources are primary motivating factors for her work. Nevoigt is researching how renewable raw and waste materials can be better utilized. Instead of chemical catalysts, she uses enzymes and microorganisms as biocatalysts. Ensuring that her research has practical applications is very important to her. “I want to see what my work can achieve,” she says. That said, she also enjoys conducting basic research.
Agricultural waste often contains significant amounts of substances whose nature precludes them from being used by baker’s yeast. Some of the compounds in such substrates are often toxic or growth retarding, and thus hinder fermentation. As such, the challenge is to develop new and improved yeast strains using biotechnology. Elke Nevoigt has filed several patents in this area. To take one example, one of the processes that she has developed makes the production of bioethanol more efficient, resulting in fewer by-products but more biofuel.
She is currently the coordinator of the European YEASTPEC research project, which includes partners from Finland, Belgium, and Portugal, who are working to optimize the use of sugar beet pulp. She hopes to convert the residual materials that result from sugar production into biofuel and chemicals. Her group is focusing on co-processing the building blocks of pectin. Pectin is an important structural substance in the cell walls of plants.
Nevoigt is using the latest techniques from molecular biotechnology and synthetic biology, including CRISPR-Cas9 “gene scissors,” to investigate and optimize yeast metabolism. The scientist is also training the younger generation to conduct research. She gets talented students involved in her work at an early stage and provides them with plenty of support.
Of course, she also teaches: “Going back over the basics is helpful in one’s own research.” Having worked at Jacobs University for around ten years, Nevoigt has come to greatly appreciate the international aspect of the student body. “Being in contact with other cultures and ways of seeing things is very inspiring. It’s not only the students who benefit from this kind of exchange – I do too, as a professor.”
This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs", in which Jacobs University introduces students, alumni, professors, and staff. Further episodes can be found at https://www.jacobs-university.de/faces