Author Archives: Lauren McKee

PhD position available: Sustainable biotechnology to circularise forestry waste sludge

In brief: We have a PhD position available in our group, ideally to start in the spring of 2023. Email Lauren with questions. Full details below. You must apply at this link: apply here.

Scientific goals: Thousands of tonnes of sludge waste are produced each year at pulp and paper mills, and we aim to find new ways to recover components from this waste. The sludge contains valuable organic materials like starch, cellulose, and lignin, but it is heavily contaminated by metals and minerals that inhibit recycling. Most sludge is therefore sent to landfill. In this 4-year PhD project, we will use isolation techniques and DNA sequencing to identify the microbial species that thrive in this harsh industrial ecosystem, and use advanced “omics” methods to reveal the enzymes used in sludge breakdown. We will characterise these enzymes to create new precision tools for the forestry biorefinery, and to clean up the sludge by removing organic matter (leaving large amounts of recoverable metals, particularly aluminium). This project will advance fundamental knowledge and reduce industrial waste, helping to move the industry towards a more sustainable and circular model. You will be based at the KTH Division of Glycoscience, and your main supervisor will be Lauren McKee. You will collaborate closely with researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in the department of Industrial Biotechnology, as you will be co-supervised by Johan Larsbrink.

Where we work: KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm is one of Europe’s leading technical and engineering universities, as well as a key centre of intellectual talent and innovation. We are Sweden’s largest technical research and learning institution and home to students, researchers, and faculty from around the world. Our research and education covers a wide area including natural sciences and all branches of engineering, as well as architecture, industrial management, urban planning, history and philosophy. The Division of Glycoscience is a multi-disciplinary department focussed on solving environmental and industrial challenges relating to sustainable production and usage of renewable natural resources, as well as advancing fundamental knowledge of complex carbohydrates.

The broader context: This project is funded by the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre. The WWSC is a research centre striving for scientific excellence, with a focus on new materials from trees. The centre creates knowledge and builds competence for an innovative and sustainable future value creation from forest raw materials. WWSC is a multidisciplinary collaboration between KTH, Chalmers, and Linköping University. The funding base is a donation from Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, and the Swedish forest industry is supporting the WWSC via the national platform Treesearch. As members of the WWSC, you and your supervisors will be expected to attend the workshops that take place in the Stockholm and Gothenburg areas twice per year, where you will present updates on your research and network with colleagues. You will be invited to regular Treesearch events, giving you further chances to present about your work and get access to the national Treesearch infrastructure platform.

Education and skills development: You will perform your PhD within the scope of the WWSC Academy. As a WWSC PhD student, you will attend two week-long graduate schools per year. This programme gives you a broad and deep insight into diverse forest-related topics, and helps you build a community of students aiming towards similar goals on the same timeline as you. You will also get to visit industrial sites and areas of natural beauty around Sweden, helping you get to know the country and its landscape as well. To complement your academy training, you will take doctoral courses at KTH, including online learning, lectures, and short lab projects. In addition, you will receive formal training in scientific writing and data visualisation. As part of your research, we will help you to write funding proposals to access additional financial support for travel and experimentation, giving you an even broader range of experience in science communication. I will also encourage you to write semi-regular pieces for this blog and to use other online channels to communicate with the public about your research.

Responsibilities as a PhD student: Your primary responsibility will of course be to advance the research project and to complete sufficient doctoral-level courses to earn the 60 credits you need to graduate. Your supervisors will help you to make sure you achieve these goals on time. In addition, you will spend up to 10 % of your time on Division/Departmental duties such as being responsible for a piece of equipment in the lab. Finally, you will take part in teaching younger students. The details of teaching are decided once the PhD has begun and the amount of teaching you do will be balanced against your other roles, but typically you will do some combination of lab teaching in a course for 1 or 2 years, supervising 1 or 2 MSc thesis students, and supervising 1 or 2 groups of BSc thesis students.

Eligibility for the position: To be eligible for this position, you should have a Master of Science or Engineering degree or equivalent qualification in a relevant subject area such as biotechnology. You should have completed a practical research-based (wet lab) thesis project. Documented proof of experience in areas such as molecular biology, biochemistry, and enzyme characterisation is appreciated but not necessarily required. Please email Lauren (find my email address at my KTH profile page) if you have queries about your eligibility for the role.

How to apply: You can find further specific details about this positon on the official advert, available at this link: apply here. Please note: applications can only be considered if they are made through the KTH application portal, linked at the bottom of the advert. Informal applications made by email cannot be considered. However, you are welcome to email Lauren if you have questions or are curious about this position.

Introducing Glycolink, a new start-up company

One of the projects ongoing in our group at KTH aims to develop the use of carbohydrate-binding proteins as polysaccharide cross-linkers in hydrogels and viscous formulations. We see this technology as a sustainable, fossil-free, and catalyst-free alternative to hydrogels made from petrochemicals and chemically modifed biopolymers. In 2021, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) supported this view by listing us as one of the Top 100 sustainable projects of the year.

Group leader Lauren McKee and postdoc Mengshu Hao co-founded the start-up company Glycolink AB in the autumn of 2021, with the goal of exploring commercialisation of this hydrogel technology. Our third and final co-founder is Mohamad Takwa, a serial biotech entrepeneur who has supported a number of successful start-ups. We are ably assisted by business developer Isak Edvardsson, who has worked alongside Mohamad for several years.

We filed our first patent application in November 2021 and are now pursuing several lines of basic research both at KTH and with partners. In the coming months we will be measuring the sustainability of our hydrogel-making innovation, testing the scaleability of our manufacturing processes, and screening the safety of our material for on-skin applications such as cosmetics and wound dressings.

In the earliest days of this project, I received an award from KTH Innovation that supported market research to verify the commercial viability of the material. Since 2019 our research in this area at KTH has been funded by the Swedish research council Formas. And most recently we secured a small business loan from Almi for hypothesis testing and MVP (minimal viable product) validation.

I’m sure we have a long journey ahead of us, but you can follow our progress on our LinkedIn page or company website.

Our hydrogel project is recognised on this year’s “Top 100 List” by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences

Post updated 14/11/2022. We have now founded a company to explore commericalisation of the Glycolink project described here. See this blog post to read about the company founding, check out our company webpage, and follow us on LinkedIn!

On May 10th, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) published their selection of projects “deemed to have great potential to benefit through commercialisation, business and method development, or societal impact.” The list has a different theme each year, and for 2022 the theme was “technology in the service of humanity.”

In February this year, we submitted our biomaterials-focussed project GlycoLink for consideration for inclusion on the list, and we are delighted to be one of the 70 projects the IVA has chosen to highlight. This is a project I have been working on for a long time, since I first observed an unusual binding interaction while testing protein activity on microbial polysaccharides. In late 2019, I was awarded funding by Formas, the Swedish national research council for sustainable development, and at the time of that award I was interviewed by the popular science magazine Extrakt (article in Swedish is at this link, my approximate translation into English is at this link).

In 2020, I used the Formas award to recruit Mengshu Hao as a post-doctoral fellow, and she has been working on this project full-time since the autumn of that year. Mengshu is, like me, a biochemist by training, and it has been a learning curve for both of us to pursue this line of biomaterials research, but Mengshu has made a tremendous effort to advance our understanding of the hydrogels we can produce. We have benefitted from collaboration with Qi Zhou and Salla Koskela of KTH, who have helped us to start a detailed rheological study of our gels, and who are co-applicants on our first patent application (submitted November 2021). We have also been working closely with Johan Larsbrink and Scott Mazurkewich of Chalmers University, Gothenburg to investigate the three-dimensional structures of our binding proteins.

We are currently working on two manuscripts that we plan to publish as soon as possible, describing the binding proteins we have discovered, and their exploitable polysaccharide interactions. We also plan for further collaborations with scientists at KTH and Stockholm University to respectively explore the polymer chemistry and biochemistry of our system. I look forward to being able to share the data from this project with you, both in publications and at conferences. I was happy to be able to share some information on the project at the recent Treesearch Progress 2022 event held in Kolmården, Sweden, which was also the first conference that our group could attend together post-Covid.

Photograph taken by Ioanna Sapouna at the 2022 Treesearch Progress event. Image shows Lauren McKee presenting a slide entitled “New protein cross-linkers for polysaccharide hydrogel formation.”

Year in review – 2021

Hi! This is Lauren, writing our group’s first (hopefully) annual review blog! Despite *everything* I feel quite positive looking back at 2021. There have certainly been some hurdles, delays, and setbacks, due to the *everything* going on in the world. And we have all faced problems now and then, or been distracted by concerns back home. But I feel strongly that this was the year that a research group really coalesced – I love being part of this team, I am immensely proud of what we have achieved this year, and I can’t wait to capitalise on all the work we’ve done and share it with the world in 2022. I started this website in the summer when I began to feel a group identity coming to life. I want this site to be a place that brings visibility to everyone in the group, and I have been pleased that several members have taken the chance to write updates and reflective pieces for this blog! The blog is also something you can browse through to catch up on what we and our students have been doing, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Don’t forget that if you ever have questions about us or our work, you can get in touch with me via this website, or you can find my contact details at my KTH profile page.

Research

We made solid progress in all of our major lines of experimentation this year. Mengshu’s hydrogel research is especially well advanced: we now understand how the material forms, and are beginning to assess its basic properties so we can hopefully design some applications for it. Already, Heli has established new methods for protein analysis in our lab, and her work on thermostable enzymes has some interesting results that we will build on in the spring. And Ioanna’s lignin-focussed projects have continued to become more and more interdisciplinary, as she steps outside of her chemistry comfort zone and starts to learn more about plant biology and molecular biology techniques. We are now working on manuscripts relating to all of these projects, while research continues into the new year.

Students

Supervising Master’s students for their final thesis projects is a major part of working in this lab, and 2021 was no exception. In fact, because the pandemic meant a shortage of available jobs, there were more students looking for thesis projects in the university than I ever remember! As a group, we took on four KTH students who worked January-June, and another who worked from March-September. We also had two guest students from other Swedish universities who completed 12-month thesis projects in 2021: Zijia and Amrutha both worked on some aspect of biocontrol, investigating different bacterial species to see if they might be valuable tools to suppress plant diseases.

Busy times! The KTH students worked on diverse aspects of biomaterials, bioremediation, biocontrol, and biorefinery, and I admit I found it tough to keep up with everyone’s work, so I was happy to have effective co-supervisors for all students. We also had two student interns work with Mengshu and Heli for about seven weeks. Most of our student projects were very fruitful, although some were frustrating – Amrutha learned some lessons about coping with “negative data” while still producing a fantastic thesis on plant protection.

This year I was most happy to welcome two students whose time in our lab had been long-planned and delayed by Covid restrictions! Kasane from Tokyo Institute of Technology and Beatriz from Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon finally joined us to perform thesis projects as exchange students at KTH. Beatriz is working with Mengshu on a hydrogels project, and Kasane is working with Heli and Amparo Jimenez Quero on a biorefinery project. I’m so happy to have them both here! They will be with us until early 2022.

Recruitment

Our group has expanded quite a lot in 2021. We had several master’s thesis students in the spring-summer, but we were also joined by three longer-term members through the year. Ioanna joined our group in April, and I will be her main supervisor for the rest of her PhD. Heli also joined us in April, for a postdoc expected to last at least two years. And in October, Alma started her position as a research engineer with our team, and I hope she will stay for at least a year, as she is already making very valuable contributions to all of our projects. Right now, we have no plans for new recruitments any time soon, although the funding landscape can change, and I am happy to discuss with anyone who can bring their own funding.

Funding

Heli wrote and submitted her first major grant application this year, a daunting but important step for any early career researcher. Fingers crossed for good news in 2022! Ioanna and Mengshu also each wrote a small proposal for an internal funding call at KTH, which was a first experience for them. I was happy in late 2021 to be awarded funds from the Carl Trygger Foundation to support the purchase of some much needed equipment for analysing hydrogels. And I was very pleased that my good friend Johan Larsbrink at Chalmers University, Gothenburg received project funding from Novo Nordisk Fonden – Ioanna and I will contribute to that exciting project in a small way, and I am always happy to have a chance to work with Johan.

Innovation

I learned a lot this year about “innovation” and the commercialisation of research: specifically, about how academic research can be translated into real industrial output, either through partnerships or via the founding of new companies. At the beginning of the year, I was one of the first cohort of KTH researchers to take part in a mentorship programme, where I was matched with a mentor who had founded his own company after doing a postdoc in Sweden, and has since gone on to start several successful biotech firms. He gave me a great practical education in how to determine whether a ‘research project’ can become a ‘business idea’, and I learned a lot from this scheme about how to talk about innovation, and about all of the non-scientific skills I would be able to transfer from my life in academia into the start-up ecosystem.

Then, later in the year, together with my friend and colleague Amparo, I joined a pre-incubator programme at KTH, where we are exploring the commercial potential of one of our joint research lines. Our ‘batch’ of start-up concepts meets on Thursday lunchtime every week, and we discuss everything from financing, business management, and branding, to project planning, building a strong team, and giving effective feedback. It has been extremely cool to hang out with a large group of innovators from fields ranging from AI and games/app development to biotech and space exploration, and it is especially rewarding to hear that these diverse teams are facing such similar challenges to our own. It has been a crash course in “business speak“, for sure, but by now we’re comfortable in the group, and are able to think and communicate coherently about our hopes and plans for the next few years. Amparo also recently joined the mentor programme to get an additional perspective on what we are doing, and you can read about both of our experiences in this interview.

In related news, Mengshu and I also have an exciting initiative in the works, but that announcement will come later…!

Looking ahead

As a group, we have mostly been initiating major new projects this year, and so we didn’t publish a lot of papers in 2021, although some Covid-delayed collaborations with other groups did see papers coming out, which was very nice. I also published an invited review in Environmental Microbiology Reports, co-written with colleagues in Gothenburg and Norway. All of our research projects are in full swing now so a big priority for early 2022 is to start publishing our work! We have two near-complete manuscripts that I want to submit in January, and advanced plans for at least two more we’ll be working on in the spring, so I hope you’ll get to read those in the not-too distant future. Working on these papers feels like an important step for the group, as they will represent our first joint accomplishments. As Ioanna has just passed her half-time evaluation, we also need to focus on guiding her towards PhD completion, wrapping up the projects that she has been advancing this year, and starting to work on the publications needed for a defence at KTH.

January-March is always a very busy time. I will have a heavy teaching load and at least three significant research grants to write, so I am happy to know that our experimental work is in the best of hands. Both Heli and Ioanna will be joined in their projects by Master’s thesis students, and I will supervise a group of students through a smaller project for a biopolymers-related course. I’m looking forward to meeting them, and giving them their first hands-on lab experience since pre-pandemic! I also hope that the world will open up enough that we can travel safely, so that we can attend at least one conference as a group. Maybe see you there 🙂

Welcome to our website!

Hello! We are the Stockholm CAZyme group, based at the Division of Glycoscience at KTH Royal Institute of Technology! We will be using this website to collate information about our group members and to share announcements about new events, publications, and updates on our work. If you want to learn about opportunities to join the group or collaborate with us, please see the Get In Touch page.

We are all passionate about complex carbohydrates like those found in plant and fungal cell walls: what do they look like, what are their properties, how are they made, and how can we use them? Feel free to browse around this site to learn more!

This site will be mostly maintained by me, Lauren – my biggest job is to make sure that everyone else on the team has what they need to do their work in an effective way. But other members of the team will be writing news updates as we progress, so stay tuned! If you wish, you can subscribe to this blog or sign up to get email alerts when we post something new.