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POSTECH LabCumentary Joongoo Lee (Chemical Engineering)

Chemical Biology Lab

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Chemical Biology Lab

Joongoo Lee (Chemical Engineering)

When it comes to the manufacturing of chemical substances, our mind may instantly flip to the image of a petrochemical plant equipped with large-scale facilities. It may therefore come as a shock to learn that the mechanism that produces perfect chemical materials at the fastest-possible speed are the cells that exist right within our own bodies. Cells accurately control the chain length of polymers to improve the quality of the chemical substances that are generated. Cells are even capable of regulating monomers, which are the basic building blocks of chemical materials, to synthesize multiple substances with precision from a single location.

 

One of the directives of the Laboratory of Chemical Biology headed by Professor Joongoo Lee at the Department of Chemical Engineering, POSTECH, is to discover a way to construct a cell-enabled chemical plant. Researchers are able to create novel compounds by controlling the reactions that occur within a cell. Transforming ribosomes, an organelle that performs protein synthesis within a cell, will enable scientists to create entirely new fabricated compounds, all without the use of petrochemical materials.

 

The Lab uses cellular extracts from E. coli as building blocks for chemical production. Researchers culture E.coli cells that have already been processed to a specified level before isolating and extracting just the system responsible for protein expression from these select cells.  Leveraging the capabilities of cells to synthesize biochemical substances both accurately and rapidly will open up new opportunities to engineer materials differently from the methods used in conventional chemical synthesis. The implications of this are vast;  namely, it will allow the synthesis of polymers to advance to the precision level much sought after in the field of chemical engineering.

 

Professor Lee majored in chemistry as an undergraduate, during which time he also developed an interest in biology. The precision in which living organisms demonstrate accurate functioning according to varying molecule lengths is a capability that the field of chemistry has yet to duplicate. Such organisms are also intriguing in that they divide and synthesize rapidly, seamlessly adapt to their surrounding environments, and can even evolve to harmonize with the environment. This inspired Professor Lee to apply such synthesis technology to his research to produce a wide array of materials.

 

Professor Lee joined POSTECH as an assistant professor on February 1, 2021, after completing his postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University in the US. Work is in full swing to furnish the lab which Professor Lee hopes to develop into a living chemical plant engineering varying compounds. Researchers at the Lab are dedicated to nurturing cells and speeding up and perfecting their production that will lead to new discovery, much in the same way that plastics and synthetic textiles revolutionized the world.

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