UAH and HudsonAlpha collaborate to study nature’s genetic bounty

Photo
UAH Alumnus Jim Hudson in a research laboratory at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.
Michael Mercier | UAH

When GeneCapture bore fruit as the $100,000 winner of Alabama Launchpad’s inaugural LEAP Alumni Startup Competition, the roots of that achievement grew in the special collaborative relationship The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has with Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

GeneCapture, founded by UAH professor and interim chair of the Department of Chemical & Materials Engineering Dr. Krishnan Chittur with two others, has its offices at HudsonAlpha. The company’s team of chemical engineers, molecular biologists, physicists and entrepreneurs is developing a portable instrument to screen for dozens of pathogens within an hour, for less than $20.

"GeneCapture's mission is to change the current paradigm in infection detection, and so the technologies we are developing include elements from molecular biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics and biological sensing," Dr. Chittur says.

GeneCapture's collaboration with HudsonAlpha and UAH has been critical, he says.

HudsonAlpha works to train the biotech workforce and attract serial entrepreneurs, and collaborating with UAH allows us to do so. UAH equips students with the skills and knowledge needed for a career in biotechnology, and because of the connection to HudsonAlpha, they get hands-on laboratory experience and sometimes end up working for the Institute.

Jim Hudson
HudsonAlpha cofounder

"We are so fortunate to have at HudsonAlpha a collection of incredible researchers and for-profit companies and scientists. There is almost no problem for which we cannot find someone to find a solution at HudsonAlpha. At UAH, our Office of Technology Commercialization has been very helpful and encouraging – helping us transition from an idea into a company and a product that will have a direct impact on the Alabama economy.

"It is indeed difficult to imagine how we would fare as a company without the support of UAH and access to the amazing intellectual capital that HudsonAlpha has assembled."

Working within the collaborative experience has helped him to become a better educator, as well, Dr. Chittur says.

"I am honored that I can wear the hat of an academic and professor, and also an entrepreneur, all made possible by UAH and HudsonAlpha," he says. "While I cannot prove it, I can sense that I have become a better classroom instructor and mentor to graduate students because of the ease with which I have been able to live in the world of education and the ‘real world,’ as it were. The key in this has been the people, both at UAH and HudsonAlpha."

HudsonAlpha co-founder Jim Hudson says this kind of "revolving door of collaboration between us" is exactly the kind of relationship he and HudsonAlpha co-founder Lonnie McMillian had in mind.

"HudsonAlpha works to train the biotech workforce and attract serial entrepreneurs, and collaborating with UAH allows us to do so," Hudson says. "UAH equips students with the skills and knowledge needed for a career in biotechnology, and because of the connection to HudsonAlpha, they get hands-on laboratory experience and sometimes end up working for the Institute.

"We have over 30 associate companies on campus, some of which were founded by UAH faculty members like Dr. Chittur and Dr. Joseph Ng," he says. "Professors like Dr. Eric Mendenhall, Dr. Luciano Matzkin and Dr. Leland Cseke hold adjunct faculty positions at the Institute and are able to collaborate with HudsonAlpha scientists and use high quality sequencing technology for various research projects."

Dr. Ng owns HudsonAlpha associate company iXpress Genes, which in 2014 flew a Protein Crystals for Neutron Crystallography (PC4NC) experiment developed with Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the International Space Station to study the roles enzymes play in biological processes.

Dr. Cseke, who in the past has worked on United States Dept. of Agriculture genetic identification of invasive plant species with HudsonAlpha’s Dr. Jian Han, developer of the iCubate modular gene sequencing system, says the collaborative relationship continues to support his current work on the interaction of plants and soil microbes.

"My interactions with companies and researchers at HudsonAlpha have definitely been beneficial," Dr. Cseke says. "I have worked extensively with the HudsonAlpha Genomic Services Laboratory (GSL), which allows access to some of the most cutting edge DNA and RNA sequencing platforms at a good price."

Dr. Cseke’s lab, with the help of experts at GSL, has elucidated the metabolome of interacting plant and soil microbes.

"I continue to work with the GSL and HudsonAlpha on my current project, designed to identify what soil microbes interact with and enhance the plant immune system, allowing for increased productivity of crop plants," Dr. Cseke says.

"I have been making use of a compost tea facility that I designed and established at the south end of campus as part of the UAH Community Garden. The facility runs off of rain water and solar power alone, and it produces beneficial soil microbes that are then used to treat field plots on the UAH campus as well as on some property owned by one of the board of trustees at HudsonAlpha. We will be doing genomic sequencing as well as metagenomic sequencing of the soil and plants at these field plots."

Dr. Matzkin says that being an adjunct faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha has facilitated the expansion and growth of his research program at the Institute and at UAH. He primarily studies the role of genetic adaptation and expression in the evolution of a group of cactophilic Drosophila fruit flies that inhabit the deserts of North America.

"All the genomic work that we do in my lab has been done at HudsonAlpha, and being part of the Institute is very beneficial, since I have the opportunity to discuss my experiments with outstanding faculty investigators," says Dr. Matzkin. "HudsonAlpha is the model for what an internationally renowned research institute should be, focusing not only on innovative and trail-blazing genomic research, but as well focusing on community outreach and education."

One of the genetic tools Dr. Matzkin uses was developed in the Institute’s Richard M. Myers Lab by a team that included UAH genetic scientist and HudsonAlpha adjunct faculty member Dr. Eric Mendenhall.

"Dr. Mendenhall and the Myers Lab worked together to develop the CETCh-seq method, which is a faster, more efficient method for finding specific points on DNA that control when a gene is turned on or off," says Dr. Myers, who is president and science director of the Institute. "In doing so, we combined an established technique for locating the switches – ChIP-seq – with a common method for manipulating DNA sequences for research – CRISPR/Cas9."

The new technique is already looking like it’s making a big difference, he says.

"HudsonAlpha has had such a strong relationship with UAH since the beginning and because of that relationship, we’re able to not only work directly with their students, but also their faculty," Dr. Myers says.

"The HudsonAlpha Institute, led by President Richard Myers, is especially prolific in their research, and future collaborations seemed like they would be easy to establish and mutually beneficial," Dr. Mendenhall says. Then with a laugh, he says, "Dr. Myers really helped recruit me to come to UAH with promises of future collaborations!"

In education, UAH has partnered with HudsonAlpha in the UAH-HudsonAlpha Outreach Partnership (UHOP) to ensure a quality supply of trained biology and biotechnology employees will be readily available.

Funded by a $638,000 National Science Foundation grant, UHOP is designed to identify high school students who are both academically talented in the STEM fields and interested in pursuing an academic and professional career in biotechnology, then mentoring them while they earn their degrees. Women and minority students are a particular focus.

Students in UHOP start early with hands-on biotechnology research at HudsonAlpha, including sequencing and analyzing DNA. Co-principal investigators for the program are Biological Sciences Chair Dr. Debra Moriarity and HudsonAlpha Vice President for Educational Outreach Dr. Neil Lamb.

The program does several things for students interested in biotechnology at UAH, according to Dr. Moriarity. It provides freshman with finances to cover tuition and at least part of their room and board on campus so they don't have to work outside while starting their college career, allowing them to focus on their schoolwork.

It provides information about research in biotechnology through a course at UAH, Introduction to Biological Research, and a course at HudsonAlpha, Sample to Sequence. At HudsonAlpha, students also participate in a workshop on being a biotech professional.

UHOP provides students with faculty and peer mentoring and an opportunity to be involved in research in a laboratory. Also, they find out about graduate school and the UAH JUMP program, in order to help them further their education in biotechnology.

"All of this is intended to help them be successful and graduate from UAH ready to enter the biotechnology field in whatever way they choose," says Dr. Moriarity.

Entrepreneurially, UAH and HudsonAlpha are partners in the HudsonAlpha-University of Alabama in Huntsville Entrepreneurship Collaboration, which aims to strengthen the business skills of life science sector startups at HudsonAlpha and enhance the educational experience for students in UAH's College of Business Administration.

The Entrepreneurship Collaboration is jointly led by Dr. Jason Greene, dean of UAH's College of Business Administration, and Carter Wells, HudsonAlpha's vice president for economic development. It includes speaker exchanges from HudsonAlpha, the associate companies, and UAH; internships and assistantships for HudsonAlpha and the associate companies; and workforce development initiatives and specific programs for the associate companies and students in the UAH College of Business Administration.

The university and HudsonAlpha continually communicate on ways to bolster the regional biotechnology community, combining their strengths to address key manpower and research needs.


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