Susana Velasco (Institute of Chemical Synthesis and Homogeneous Catalysis, ISQCH) has obtained an ERC Starting Grant 2021. During her project PIEZOZYMES (Enzymatic Piezoelectric Composites to Regenerate Redox-Cofactors driven by Mechanical Sources) she will pursue novel biotechnological tools aimed at the efficient regeneration of redox cofactors powered by mechanical sources.

From her early beginnings, Susana always felt particularly attracted by the inspiring reaction mechanisms naturally occurring inside living organisms and cells. Nature has evolved through millions of years to perfectly orchestrate and regulate these metabolic pathways, which are mainly catalyzed by highly efficient and exquisite selective biocatalysts, the enzymes. Thereby, her scientific expertise is targeted at harnessing such naturally available catalytic tools as technological platforms to afford sustainable synthetic routes in a financially viable greener economy. 

Susana obtained her PhD in Biotechnology at the Metropolitan Autonomous University, Mexico (2014). Afterwards, she moved to San Sebastián (Spain) to work as a postdoctoral associate in the Cooperative Research Center in Biomaterials (CIC biomaGUNE), with an MSCA fellowship. There, she tackled the unprecedented challenge of producing electric energy by harvesting the chemical energy of renewable fuel sources catalyzed by novel bio-inorganic generators. Later, she obtained a second postdoctoral research position at the Institute of Chemical Synthesis and Homogeneous Catalysis of the Zaragoza University (Spain), where she stayed from 2017 to 2019. At this stage, she strengthened her knowledge in molecular biology techniques aimed at directed mutagenesis to rationally design and improve target enzymatic biocatalysts. Therefore, she designed enzyme mutants displaying unnatural catalytic activities. After finishing her second postdoctoral position, she got a job as a postdoctoral associate in the Heterogeneous Biocatalysis Laboratory, headed by Prof. López Gallego at CIC biomaGUNE (2020 – 2022), where she is developing diverse strategies in order to control the spatial distribution and localization of immobilized multi-enzyme systems at the nano-, micro- and macro- scales. Thanks to the ERC Starting Grant, in June 2022, she will join Zaragoza University as a principal investigator at the Institute of Synthetic Chemistry (ISQCH-CSIC).

Which are the main objectives of PIEZOZYMES?

The cost-efficient production of sustainably derived biochemicals and biofuels is a critical goal of modern biotechnology. Redox-biosynthetic pathways are fundamental in chemical manufacturing for establishing a bio-based economy. The sustainable regeneration and recycling of redox cofactors is a prerequisite for the viable industrial exploitation of many described redox-biosynthetic pathways. These boundaries hamper the employment of cofactor-dependent biotransformations at large-scale production processes. To overcome these limitations, the main objective of this project, PIEZOZYMES, pushes the forefront of technology, pursuing novel biotechnological tools aimed at the efficient regeneration of redox cofactors powered by mechanical sources. Such progress will bring several advantages over the current cofactor-regeneration systems, where the traditionally employed biochemical, electrochemical and photonic sources will be replaced by mechanical ones. The resulting technology of this project will have a valuable social impact, paving new pathways for the cost-efficient exploitation of cofactor-dependent enzymes as economically suitable biocatalysts in a plethora of industrial catalytic biotransformations.

Why did you decide to carry out your research at the ISQCH?

PIEZOZYMES main goal is highly aligned with the sustainable social development challenges that our society is facing, which are strongly encouraged and funded by the European Union. I selected the Institute of Chemical Synthesis and Homogeneous Catalysis (ISQCH) from the Zaragoza University (Spain) as an ideal place to perform this project because of its expertise and experience in chemical synthesis. which perfectly matches the needs of the project. Two years ago, I worked with them within Prof. Mayoral’s group, an experience from which I got great scientific and personal satisfaction.

How do you expect this grant will affect your professional career?

My scientific expertise is targeted at harnessing naturally available catalytic tools as technological platforms to obtain sustainable synthetic routes in a financially viable bioeconomy. To achieve this, I design and develop cell-free and self-sufficient heterogeneous multi-enzymatic biocatalysts performing cascade biotransformations, aiming to create artificial metabolic pathways that synthesize valuable commercial compounds supplying the current and future societal demands. My research interests encompass multidisciplinary approaches merging biochemistry, enzymology, molecular biology, organic and material chemistry and piezoelectricity. Being awarded an ERC Starting Grant represents an excellent and unique opportunity for me to settle and start my independent research group while contributing new biocatalytic tools aimed to strengthen our capacity to face future social development and challenges. Undoubtedly, the grant funding will boost my scientific career, allowing me the opportunity to conduct and materialize my ideas and approaches, will at the end I hope they can contribute to our transition towards a greener and sustainable society. Beyond, thanks to this funding, I will have the opportunity to participate in the formation of the next scientist generation, which is really an honour and pleasure for me. 

Are you planning to open research positions at your group? Which kind of profiles are you interested in?

Yes, I will initially start this year by opening two PhD positions, one postdoctoral position and one technician position ideally with the following scientific background profile:

– Postdoctoral associate: biotechnologist or chemist, with contrasted experience in electrobiocatalysis, molecular biology (site-directed mutagenesis) and bioconjugation of enzymes on solid materials.

– PhD-1: biotechnologist or chemical biology, preferably with experience in molecular biology, enzymology, biocatalysis.

– PhD-2: chemistry degree, preferably with experience in material science and electrochemistry.

– Technician: general chemistry, preferably with a chromatography background.

Are you planning any collaborations?

Initially, I will have an external collaborator, Prof. Jaume Esteve at the Microelectronic Institute of Barcelona (Spain), who has recognized expertise in the fabrication of microelectronic devices. Up to now, I do not have other collaborations in mind, but of course, I am open to all possibilities and interested researchers.

Where can we learn more about you and your project?

Twitter: @Susanita_feliz

Selected publications

Co-immobilized Phosphorylated Cofactors and Enzymes as Self-Sufficient Heterogeneous Biocatalysts for Chemical Processes. S. Velasco-Lozano, A. I. Benítez-Mateos and F. López-Gallego. Angewandte Chemie – International Edition, 56(3): 771-775 (2017)

Selective oxidation of alkyl and aryl glyceryl monoethers catalysed by an engineered and immobilised glycerol dehydrogenase. S. Velasco-Lozano, M. Roca, A. Leal-Duaso, J. A. Mayoral, E. Pires, V. Moliner and F. López-Gallego. Chemical Science, 11(44): 12009-12020 (2020)

During the following weeks, we will be presenting those researchers working at Spanish institutions that have obtained an ERC Starting or Consolidator Grant 2021 and their projects. You can check their profiles HERE.