Cushman named UNR’s Outstanding Researcher

John CushmanJohn Cushman, a foundation professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and director of the Biochemistry graduate program, was named UNR’s 2013 Outstanding Researcher this spring.

In addition to his own groundbreaking work to develop biofuel feedstocks for semi-arid regions of the western U.S., Cushman catalyzes multidisciplinary efforts at UNR to create alternative biofuel feedstocks and biofuels. He collaborates with a wide variety of faculty members, and leads the Biofuel and Biomass group within the UNR Renewable Energy Center. In that role he interacts with more than 20 faculty members across the UNR campus and the Desert Research Institute (DRI). At regular meetings of this group, scientists talk about their individual research and look for opportunities to synergize interdisciplinary research collaborations on biofuel topics.

Cushman came to UNR in 2000 to continue his research on abiotic stress tolerance in plants. One area of interest is the characterization and genome sequencing of the extremely salt-tolerant green alga Dunaliella salina. The work expanded to include research collaborations on the growth of salt- and fresh-water algal species using liquid municipal wastewater. He is working on that in collaboration with Dr. Eric Marchand of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Cushman is also working with Dr. Mae Gustin, a professor the CABNR Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, to evaluate the removal of heavy metals from wastewater.

“Simultaneous wastewater treatment and biofuel production would benefit society enormously,” Cushman said. “The only drawback is that this process cannot be scaled up easily without major capital investment.”

In collaboration with Dr. Vera Samburova and Dr. Barbara Zielinska at the DRI Division of Atmospheric Sciences, the oil contents of several algae isolates were analyzed to evaluate their potential for use as biofuel feedstocks.

In addition to algal feedstock, his group is interested in a wide variety of terrestrial plant feedstocks for biofuel production in semi-arid regions of the western U.S., including prickly pear cactus, agave, and oilseed crops like Camelina. Many of these materials could be a source of liquid fuels to replace fossil fuels.

Cushman and a team of researchers recently were awarded a $14.3 million Department of Energy grant to lead an effort to move the water-use efficient photosynthetic characteristics of drought-tolerant plants – such as cactus and agave – into woody biomass crop plants such as poplar.

This could potentially fortify the crop against long-term temperature increases and lower rainfall, allowing them to be grown on marginal land to produce cash crops where there are currently none.

Cushman is working with researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and from Newcastle University and the University of Liverpool in the UK. Karen Schlauch, a professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department at UNR and Director of the Nevada Center for Bioinformatics, is providing critical data analysis expertise for this complex research.

Empowering biofuel feedstock trees to thrive in hotter, drier growing conditions is a complex process. The metabolic processes of plants that normally perform photosynthesis during the daylight hours are altered so that the exchange of moisture and carbon dioxide occurs at night, saving water and potentially resulting in poplar trees requiring 80 percent less water.

Identifying the key genes and proteins that enable certain plants to take up carbon dioxide at night could benefit other crops and could help maintain food security and food crop productivity as the Earth gets warmer and drier, as climatologists predict.

Cushman’s group also studies the drought and salinity tolerance of Camelina, a relative of canola and rapeseed, to improve its potential for use as a biofuel crop in northern Nevada and the Great Basin.

“Crops like Camelina not only have local economic implications for Nevada through the creation of a distributed feedstock market, but also will have an impact on the global economy,” Cushman said.

Cushman is collaborating with Hongfei Lin, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, who is working on novel biomass conversion technologies to produce liquid fuels and other products, such a green plastics, from arid lands feedstocks.

With climatologists predicting a drier, warmer Earth in the future, Cushman said, “we have to begin to transition to alternative energy production systems to supply drop-in replacement fuels for heavy trucking and aviation — transportation sectors that are not readily moved toward natural gas or battery power in the near term.”