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Chemical Engineer Doug Clark Wins BIOT's Johnson Award

doug clark

When the congratulatory email arrived, Chemical Engineering Professor Douglas S. Clark's self-effacing nature made him hesitate to share the news. The email, from the Division of Biochemical Technology (BIOT) of the American Chemical Society, said:

"On behalf of the BIOT Executive Committee, the Johnson Award selection committee, and Pfizer Corporation, it is my great pleasure to congratulate you as the 2006 Marvin J. Johnson Award recipient of the ACS Division of Biochemical Technology."

Soon Clark relented and passed the word to department chair Alex Bell. "I thought it might be of departmental interest," says Clark with a smile. "Obviously I'm very pleased and honored."

The award recognizes Clark's achievements in the areas of enzyme technology, biocatalysis, applications of thermophilic microorganisms and thermostable enzymes.

Although he has worked with many extremophiles – microorganisms that thrive under extreme pressures, temperatures and other harsh conditions – Clark is most familiar with a strange creature called Methanocaldococcus jannaschi. These bacteria-like archaea live near smoker vents on the ocean floor and prefer scalding hot water of 85 degrees centigrade and pressures of over 200 atmospheres, enough to crush most submarines.

M. jannaschii is a methanogen that eats carbon dioxide and hydrogen and converts them to methane and water. The microorganism is named after its discoverer, Holger Jannasch of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a colleague of Clark's who died from cancer in 1998.

The enzymes and other biochemicals produced by extremophiles like M. jannaschii are robust and heat stable and have dozens of uses in industry – from helping laundry detergents clean better, to speeding the fermentation of biomass into ethanol, to improving the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technologies that have helped map the human genome.

Clark is particularly intrigued by a protein that forms long filaments that could be used as thermally stable nanowires. "We are interested in extremophiles as sources for novel biomolecules with potential as pharmaceuticals, new biomaterials and nanobiotechnology," says Clark. "We are not just after enzymes, but biomolecules of all shapes and sizes. These new extremophiles are expanding the operational limits of biotech."

BIOT was founded in 1936 as the ACS Fermentation Division. The Fermentation Division went through many name changes over the years but in 1989 settled on the name Biochemical Technology Division to reflect the increasing focus on biotechnology within ACS. Clark will deliver the Johnson Award Lecture in September at the Annual meeting of the ACS in San Francisco.

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