Mahoney Life Sciences Prize Awarded to UMass Amherst Microbiologist Designing Bacteria to Produce Electrical Wires

Inventions can use ‘green’ components for sustainable electronics
Derek Lovley
Derek Lovley

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Derek Lovley has been awarded the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for his research on protein nanowires, a new electronic material with unique properties that is produced with bacteria to avoid the harmful environmental effects associated with man-made materials.

The low-cost, sustainable “green” material has been developed in the Geobacter laboratory in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS), where Lovley and his colleagues say their advances hold great promise for a wide range of practical applications in sustainable energy generation, as well as in the production of electronic products such as biomedical sensors and memory storage devices. The new material demonstrates a versatility not found in similar materials such as silicon nanowires or carbon nanotubes.

Protein nanowires require much less energy to produce, do not require harsh chemicals or dangerous conditions to create and are biodegradable. These advantages among others are expected to change the electronics industry for the better, Lovley notes.

He adds, “These findings have many exciting applications, and the more time we invest studying the possibilities, the more we will understand how we can help the electronics industry be more sustainable and forward-thinking. My colleagues and I are extremely grateful to the Mahoney family for their recognition and support of this important work.”

A comment by one of the prize’s expert reviewers states, “The ability to monitor biological processes in real time as well as monitor the level of different compounds and metabolites in the body is a critical component in treating diseases, especially many chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Dr. Lovley’s advances in nanowires appear to create a key component towards that end.”

Established in 2018 by UMass Amherst alumni and siblings Richard, Robert and William Mahoney, the prize is an annual competition for scientists in the College of Natural Sciences engaged in high-impact life sciences research. It seeks to recognize and honor excellence, advance translatable research that addresses a significant challenge and enhance collaborative relationships between life sciences researchers and industry.

Following a close review by an expert panel of life science industry scientists and executives, the prize is awarded to one CNS faculty member who is the principal author of peer-reviewed research that meets the broader goals of the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, including advancing connections between academic research and industry. The $10,000 prize is usually featured at an awards ceremony on campus, but this year’s event has been postponed due to COVID-19.

Richard Mahoney, former CEO and chairman of Monsanto, says, “We are proud to support the expert research being carried out by UMass researchers through the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize. It is critical that we do all we can to strengthen and promote the links between scientific innovation and industrial applications that solve critical problems and improve people’s lives. Dr. Lovley’s research is representative of those efforts, and he leads the state, nation and world in his area of microbiological research. The incredible breakthroughs that happen locally at UMass Amherst continue to place UMass at the forefront of research institutions everywhere.”

The Mahoney brothers all received their chemistry degrees from UMass Amherst. They went on to become leaders in their own industries and have served as high-level alumni advisers to the university and as mentors to students.

Dean Tricia Serio of CNS says, “We are so thankful to the Mahoney family for establishing this prize, which allows us to honor and bring visibility to our most innovative scientists, such as Derek Lovley. His interdisciplinary and translational scientific research yields the type of disruptive advances that greatly benefit our society.” 

Lovley’s research has been featured in TIME, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Nature, and other national and international media outlets. His colleagues in this award-winning research include Toshiyuki Ueki, David J.F. Walker, Pier-Luc Tremblay, Kelly P. Nevin, Joy E. Ward, Trevor L. Woodard and Stephen S. Nonnenmann.

Seven other CNS faculty were nominated for the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize this year: Todd Emrick, polymer science and engineering; Alejandro Heuck, biochemistry and molecular biology; Craig Martin, chemistry; David Julian McClements, food science; Margaret Riley, biology; Sloan Siegrist, microbiology; and Kim Tremblay, veterinary and animal sciences.

Expert research reviewers for the prize were Stefan Baier, head of food science at Motif FoodWorks; Richard Gregory, biotechnology consultant; Dennis Guberski, founder of Mucosal Vaccine Technologies LLC; David Mazzo, president and chief executive officer, Caladrius Biosciences; James McColgan, director of plasmid manufacturing at Pfizer Global Manufacturing; Vic Myer, entrepreneur in residence at Atlas Venture; and Chuck Sherwood, founder and retired president of Anika Therapeutics.