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   from the issue of November 16, 2006

Alumnus named Discover scientist of the year


Alumnus Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering and a synthetic biologist now at the University of California, Berkeley, was named Scientist the Year by the international science magazine Discover.

SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR - Alumnus Jay Keasling interacts with students in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Keasling...
 SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR - Alumnus Jay Keasling interacts with students in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Keasling was named the Discover magazine Scientist of the Year for his research in genetic engineering. Courtesy photo/UC Berkeley Public Affairs.

The December Discover issue features profiles on the nation's top scientists in its annual look at the top minds in scientific research. Keasling, a 1986 graduate of UNL with a double major in chemistry and biology and a native of Harvard, Neb., earned top honors.

"This is a major accomplishment and acknowledgment that Jay is brilliant," said John Janovy Jr., professor of biology at UNL and a former teacher of Keasling's. "Jay's work in genetics, manipulating genes and working with artificial DNA has been known for some time. He's a very creative and gifted molecular and chemical engineer and it's exciting to see him earn this honor."

Raised on his family's corn, soybean and cattle farm, Keasling developed an early interest in microbiology, and when he attended UNL, he was attracted to the coursework and undergraduate research experience at Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala. He went on to microbiology research and a doctorate at University of Michigan, followed by postdoctoral research at Stanford University. When he arrived at Berkeley in 1992, his background included chemical engineering and biochemistry and new ideas on how to re-engineer enzyme reactions in microbes. This became a new area now called synthetic biology.

As director of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at Berkeley, Keasling aims to remake genetics in the mold of computer science, enabling researchers to "program" the traits they want in an organism, according to Discover. Such made-to-order life could potentially enable scientists to make custom-tailored drugs, detoxify environmental contaminants, and create replacements for fossil fuels.

The December issue of Discover lists Svante Paabo as a runner up for the 2006 Scientist of the Year award...
The December issue of Discover lists Svante Paabo as a runner up for the 2006 Scientist of the Year award. His primate research is featured in the "Discover Evolution" exhibit at Morrill Hall.


"I'm an engineer at heart," he told Discover. "And I like to be able to manipulate things and to predict a priori what kind of effect it's going to have on the cell. So it's this aspect of being able to design, build your design, and then see how close the result is to the original prediction."

In 2003 he was appointed head of the first synthetic biology department in the country, and his Berkeley lab has resulted in engineered bacteria that clean up toxic waste, including heavy metal contamination, and work on a bug that feeds on nerve agents and organophosphate pesticides.

His work was rewarded in December 2004 with the receipt of a $42.6 million Gates Foundation grant to create breakthrough technology to produce a cure for malaria that is inexpensive enough to benefit the poor all over the world. His work on artemisinin, a synthetic antimalarial drug that he hopes to have on the market in 2009, is part of his ultimate passion to help society and the environment.

Keasling has family in Harvard including his father and grandmother and has fond memories of Nebraska and UNL.

"I was in Delta Tau Delta fraternity and I have great memories of that," he said. "My most memorable courses were the ones that I took at the biological field station in Ogallala. John Janovy ran it then, and it was such a fun and exciting place. I took courses all that summer from John Janovy, John Lynch and Tony Joern."

The three-page Discover profile on Keasling outlines his views on pharmaceuticals and synthetic biology, hydrocarbons as fuel, the biotechnology industry, genetically engineered crops and the future of his research.



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