Lynch Wins Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award

Researchers at Duke University have received a grant to engineer microbes to make explosives.

“Well, precursors to energetic materials,” explained Mike Lynch, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and chemistry at Duke. “These compounds are traditionally produced from petroleum sources, many outside of the United States and everyone is trying to move away from using petroleum and toward a domestic supply. Plus the current processes creates a lot of unwanted hazardous waste.”

The grant comes in the form of a 2016 Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research. The $510,000, three-year awards support researchers in their first or second full-time tenure-track or tenure-track-equivalent academic appointment who show exceptional promise for doing creative research.

Lynch’s creative approach is much like that of the farmer who prunes an orchard to encourage trees to direct their energy toward producing fruit rather than growing branches. By culturing microbes at industrial scales as quickly as possible before dynamically shutting down growth, Lynch can channel all the microbes’ energy toward product formation. This approach also reduces the complexity of a cell’s biochemical reactions to a few dozen processes that can be tailored to produce the compound in question.

In this instance, Lynch will be tailoring bacteria to produce butanetriol and phloroglucinol, which are precursors to several energetic materials, among numerous other products. Not only will this help the nation’s long-term energy and national security by moving away from petroleum while securing a domestic supply for these materials, it will also eliminate the toxic wastes and negative environmental impacts of current manufacturing approaches. The explosives eventually produced by these two compounds are also much safer and more stable than many others currently in use. These materials are routinely used not only by the Department of Defense but also by NASA, the Department of Energy and many in the private sector.

“There are also other numerous interesting applications for butanetriol and phloroglucinol in other final products including pharmaceuticals including antispasmodics (Flopropione) and cholesterol lowering drugs (Crestor and Zetia), as well as dyes and potentially novel advanced materials,” said Lynch. “This is a good way to start moving in several exciting areas, another reason I am excited about this project.”