UD Engineering’s Aditya Kunjapur earns two prestigious awards for innovative research
Aditya Kunjapur, an assistant professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is the recent recipient of prestigious early career awards for his biosynthetic research from both the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR).
Kunjapur is one of 32 researchers earning this year’s ONR Young Investigator Award, which aims to support the research and teaching of creative, early career scientists and engineers who have graduated in the past seven years and are on the tenure track. The honor comes along with $510,000 in funding over a three-year period. It will support Kunjapur’s synthetic biology work — specifically finding enzymes that can essentially set boundaries for certain microbes — and support progress in his lab’s other research interests such as plastic degradation, the manufacture of natural chemicals and biological containment.
The ONR funding will support one postdoctoral researcher and builds on several research areas in the Kunjapur lab.
“When we do this kind of genetic engineering with microbes, there are a lot of really cool applications we could generate, some of which might be really neat to do in open environments,” Kunjapur explained.
Some microbes can be engineered to produce light in the presence of explosive chemicals, for example, while others could be used to screen the environment for other parameters, such as those used in water quality monitoring.
The problem is, scientists don’t want to just unleash modified microbes into the environment without being able to control how far they go or their ability to proliferate. Kunjapur said he hopes this work will bridge that knowledge gap.
Kunjapur also is one of only nine awardees who secured funding this year through the Foundation for Food and Agriculture. Kunjapur caught the agency’s attention with his proposal to further study the interactions between microbes, plants and soil to examine whether a laboratory-produced microbe could boost agricultural crops’ resistance to pathogens while also keeping the microbe’s growth in check.
The FFAR New Innovator award comes along with $450,000 in funding over three years and will support one postdoctoral researcher and one graduate student. Similar to the ONR award, this research also deals with “synthetic auxotrophy,” or genetic modification of microorganisms that rely on external compounds, such as nutrients or proteins, that they cannot produce themselves for growth and survival.
Kunjapur, who finished his postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School in 2018, joined the UD faculty that same year. Since then, he has been named a fellow of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security’s Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative, to the “35 Under 35” 2020 class of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and last year earned the AIChE Langer Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Excellence.