Dr. Peralta-Yahya’s group is discovering, advancing, and applying principles from biochemistry and chemical engineering to address challenges in chemical bioproduction and chemical detection.
Dr. Pamela Peralta-Yahya leads a diverse research group that includes chemists, biologists, and chemical engineers who draw from principles of biochemistry and engineering to build systems for chemical detection and production. The group focuses on chemical sensors based on G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR), microbial production of alkaloids, and microbial production of fuels and commodity chemicals. Their work can ultimately benefit many industries, including agriculture, food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and plastics.
Key developments from her group include:
- Standardizing production of GPCR-based sensors in yeast to reduce the cost and accelerate the pace of drug discovery for these receptors, which are applicable to over 30% of U.S. Federal Drug Administration—approved drugs.
- Developing advanced biofuels, including pinene, which when dimerized (i.e., joining two molecules or ions by bonds) has sufficient energy content to power rockets and missiles.
In addition to developing biological systems that are more precise, efficient, and environmentally friendly than petroleum-based products, her group is also working on cutting-edge areas, such as powering the return flight of Mars rockets and enabling synthetic cells to learn without evolution. They are funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and NASA.
Working on the chemical sensing capabilities of the largest GPCR subfamily, olfactory receptors (ORs), they are examining ORs’ role in nature, its potential as a biomedical target, and its ability to detect compounds not amenable for detection using other biological scaffolds.
“My laboratory aims to use directed evolution to radically accelerate, from years to mere days, the time required to engineer biological systems for chemical production,” said Dr. Peralta-Yahya. “To enable this acceleration, we develop chemical sensors from GPCRs. Using chemical sensors within microfluidics, we are working towards evolving microbes, for biofuel and pharmaceutical production, at speeds five orders of magnitude faster than current technologies.”
- Green alternatives to petroleum fuels and chemicals: GPCR-based biosensors speed up the screening of chemical-producing microbes, permitting the engineering of strains at industrially relevant yields.
- Faster routes to anticancer, antimicrobial, and analgesic agents: Plant alkaloids are medicinally promising but difficult to synthesize and separate from impurities. Yeast-based synthesis could accelerate production of alkaloid-derived drugs.
- Microbial synthesis of fuels and chemicals: The lab has engineered microbes to produce a biosynthetic alternative to the high-energy–density fuel JP-10, a synthetic aviation turbine fuel.
- Industrial pathways to fuels, pharmaceuticals, and food ingredients: The natural enzyme pterin can be used to modify lignin-based aromatic monomers and could provide substantial high-value intermediates for the energy-efficient production of aromatic-based feedstocks.
- Protein engineering
- Metabolic engineering
- Synthetic biology
- Synthetic chemistry
- Affiliated Investigator, National Science Foundation Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center
- Editorial Board Member, Synthetic Biology; Microbial Cell Factories; and Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology journals
- The National Institutes of Health Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (2017)