UCSB Researcher Michelle O’Malley Honored by MIT Technology Review as Pioneer in Field


Mimi Liu
Staff Writer

UCSB Assistant Professor Michelle O’Malley has recently been recognized by the MIT Technology Review for her innovative research regarding anaerobic microbes and their enzyme mechanisms.

“I am honored to be recognized by MIT Tech Review as one of their Innovators Under 35,” said O’Malley to the UCSB Current. “Each year this list features an impressive collection of individuals across diverse fields who are pushing the boundaries of science, engineering and technology,” she continued. “It’s amazing to be counted among these remarkable people, and I look forward to translating our basic science discoveries into engineering solutions.”

O’Malley’s research was recognized by Tech Review in the field of nanotechnology and materials; her lab at UCSB operates in the department of Chemical Engineering. According to their lab website, her team lies “at the interface of engineering and biology,” as they explore the degradation of plant matter by anaerobic gut fungi and associated microbes.

“We’re one of the only groups in the world taking a look at anaerobic fungi, which are the primary colonizers of plant biomass in herbivores like cows and horses,” O’Malley said, in an interview with The Bottom Line. The microbes of the gut work together in a cohesive “gut consortium,” she continued, and the end result is a mixed bag of microbes that “almost behave like an organism.”

O’Malley is not one to understate the importance of microbes. “We’re actually more microbes than human cells—which is a fascinating statistic,” she said. “Anaerobic microbes in particular are capable of functioning together to decompose carbon-rich biomass, whether in guts or landfills.”

Unfortunately, anaerobic microbes are “woefully understudied” compared to their aerobic cousins. This is partially because anaerobes often live in extreme environments, which makes them difficult to study in laboratory settings. As a result, O’Malley’s team independently isolates and cultures their microbe samples using specialized anaerobic techniques. “Generally, these fungi can be found in the digestive tract of large herbivores,” O’Malley explained.

Anaerobic microbes are especially relevant in the context of possible green energy sources. The breakdown of plant matter offers sustainable alternatives, since cellulose simplifies down to sugar subunits which are then fermented by anaerobic microbes into fuel products like ethanol and butanol.

“Enzymes together perform multiple steps to digest cellulose to sugar,” explains O’Malley, “and it’s almost like an enzymatic dis-assembly line.” Her research involves more than just the isolation of anaerobic fungi; she also examines the synthesis of their enzymes and enzyme complexes, called fungal cellulosomes. Understanding how exactly anaerobic gut fungi produce enzymes is the first step towards synthesizing such enzymes for broader applications.

Additionally, O’Malley studies membrane proteins of gut fungi, particularly their G-coupled protein receptors (GCPRs), which are receptors, located on cell surfaces. They “act like an inbox for messages,” which then relay information to the cell. This is just as important as it sounds, and researchers estimate that up to half of all drugs on the market target GCPRs in human cells.

“Anaerobic fungi are the oldest free living eukaryotes on the earth, and their GCPRs offer new insight into the origin of human GCPRs,” she said. Further understanding of human membrane proteins is medically relevant, especially in terms of treating diseases. Applications of O’Malley’s research include possible pharmaceutical developments, according to MIT Tech Review’s profile.

“It’s important to be multidisciplinary,” said O’Malley, when asked about the engineering aspect of her work. “Part of what makes us unique is that we have one foot in discovery as well as one foot in engineering cellular processes for direct applications.” Understanding of anaerobes will pave the way for their practical applications, in fuel products, sustainable chemicals, and pharmaceutics.

O’Malley’s extensive work involving anaerobic gut fungi, an understudied area, explains why she is one of nine “Pioneers” selected in MIT Tech Review’s “Innovators Under 35”. Other categories include “Inventors,” “Entrepreneurs,” “Visionaries,” and “Humanitarians.”

“Over the years, we’ve had success in choosing young innovators whose work has been profoundly influential on the direction of human affairs,” said Jason Pontin, MIT Tech Review editor in chief and publisher, to the UCSB Current. “Previous winners include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; and Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple. We’re proud of our selections and the variety of achievements they celebrate, and we’re proud to add Michelle O’Malley to this prestigious list.”