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UC Davis is collaborating on sustainability research with Dubai developer

In the local Sacramento/Davis area, the University of California, Davis and a Dubai-based developer have entered into an agreement to collaborate on sustainability research, says a June 18, 2014 news release, "UC Davis and Dubai-based developer enter agreement to collaborate on sustainability research." Diamond Developers, inspired by the local Sacramento/Davis area energy-efficient West Village at the University of California, Davis, is building its own sustainable city on the outskirts of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The company is collaborating with UC Davis to expand research and develop curricula related to sustainable communities. And sustainable communities use sustainable foods.

UC Davis is collaborating on sustainability research with Dubai developer.
Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

The agreement will benefit interdisciplinary research and study on the UC Davis campus and at the developer’s center in Dubai. Scholars throughout the world will be involved in the project, enabling knowledge and research on sustainable development in a variety of climates and settings worldwide. Under the agreement, Dubai-based Diamond Developers has agreed to disburse to the UC Davis-led project $2.9 million during the next three years. Diamond Developers already has provided the first installment of $200,000 under the agreement.

Under the terms of the grant, Diamond Developers will establish a Center of Excellence, named the “Sustainability Research and Training Center in collaboration with UC Davis.”

The agreement was signed in Dubai by Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi of UC Davis and by Faris Saeed, CEO of Diamond Developers. After the signing ceremony, senior representatives from the two organizations started working together on defining the most impactful research and training initiatives.

“This is an exciting opportunity for UC Davis to promote collaborative research,” said Suad Joseph, according to the news release. Joseph is the co-principal investigator for the project and founding director of the UC Davis Middle East/South Asia Studies (ME/SA) program. UC Davis is the only UC campus with a minor and major in ME/SA Studies.

“This is where we form the relationships that lead to productive research – with this, we get to do research on the ground while the sustainable city is being built,” said Joseph, co-director of the Sustainability Research and Training Program, supporting the Center of Excellence. Joseph is also a distinguished professor of anthropology and women and gender studies.

Also co-directing the training program is Bryan Jenkins, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis.

Among the challenges that Dubai and other countries in dry climates face is lack of rainfall, so solutions for the treatment of wastewater and ensuring adequate water supply are priorities. “These are all the issues we want to look at in this project,” Joseph said, according to the news release.

The sustainable city project in Dubai is under construction. The developers visited UC Davis West Village, the largest planned zero net energy community in the United States, in 2010 when it was being built. It opened in October 2011 and now houses faculty, staff and students.

The agreement follows years of collaboration between UC Davis and Diamond Developers. Saeed, chief executive officer of the company, is a longtime supporter of and donor to the university’s ME/SA program.

UC Davis’ Sustainability Research and Training Program has issued a call for proposals, with concept papers due in June and full proposals due in July. A total of $750,000 is expected to be made available for that program, with individual research projects limited to a maximum of $150,000 each for the first call. Another $500,000 will be available for research in 2014-15 and the following year.

Additional funds will go toward development of online curricula, the development of new indices of sustainability, a comparative study of West Village and the Dubai Sustainable City, as well as training programs and future research in development of sustainable communities. The scope of the research is to investigate fundamental questions and unsolved social and engineering issues linked to energy, water, waste, soil, agriculture and food, mobility, information, behavior, policy, and systems integration for the purposes of designing, implementing and maintaining sustainable communities.

Grant applicants are encouraged to work with at least one partner from a consortium of universities. The consortium includes UC Davis, American University of Beirut, American University in Cairo, Lebanese American University, and Birzeit University in Palestine.

Sacramento and Davis scientists are focusing on sustainability and scents

Another one of the numerous sustainability projects at the University of California, Davis is research on scents and sustainability to develop renewable sources for artificial scents and flavors. For example, fresh banana, a waft of flowers, blueberry. The scents in Shota Atsumi's laboratory in the University of California, Davis Department of Chemistry are a little sweeter than most. That's because Atsumi and his team are engineering bacteria to make esters -- molecules widely used as scents and flavorings, and also as basic feedstock for chemical processes from paints to fuels.

Their latest work, "Expanding ester biosynthesis in Escherichia coli," appears online since March 9, 2014 in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. Nearly all industrial chemicals, from artificial flavorings to paint, are derived from oil or gas, Atsumi said, according to a March 9, 2014 news release, "Scents and sustainability." "Our motivation is to make chemicals from renewable sources instead," Atsumi said, according to the news release." Scents and flavorings make up a $20 billion industry worldwide."

Esters are molecules in which two chains of carbon atoms are linked through an oxygen atom. They are made chemically by reacting an alcohol with an organic acid. But the thermodynamics of this reaction mean that it tends to run the other way -- it's easier to break up an ester than to make it.

Living cells can also make esters

For example, yeasts produce small amounts of esters that give flavors to wine and beer, without requiring high temperatures or special conditions. "The reaction is chemically difficult but biologically easy," Atsumi said, according to the news release. "Nature gives you a great system to work with."

Nature uses a class of enzymes called alcohol O-acetyltransferases to make esters from acyl-Coenzyme A (acyl-CoA) molecules. These consist of a carbon chain of variable length, attached to a coenzyme A subunit. Loss of coenzyme A during the reaction provides energy to drive the process.

Changing the acyl- part of acyl-CoA that goes into the reaction changes the type of ester that is produced

Atsumi, graduate student Gabriel Rodriquez and postdoctoral researcher Yohei Tashiro took genes for biochemical pathways from yeast and introduced them into E. coli bacteria, a reliable test system for genetic engineering. By tweaking the Acyl-CoA pathway, they could manipulate one half of the ester: by adjusting the pathway that produces alcohols in the cell, and by shutting down other potential pathways, they could adjust the other half. Therefore, they were able to pick the final ester made by the bacteria.

The technique, which has been patented, opens up possibilities for producing many different esters in biological systems, Atsumi said. The source material for the bacteria is based on sugars, which can come from renewable biomass. Ultimately, Atsumi hopes to engineer these chemical pathways into cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), single-celled organisms that can draw energy directly from sunlight and carbon from the atmosphere. The work was partly supported by a Hellman Fellowship awarded to Atsumi. You also may wish to check out the abstract of another noteworthy study, "Metabolic engineering: The sweet smell of biosynthesis."

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