Daria Feldman, a doctoral student in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, has received the The Robert H. Smith Vision Prize for 2017. The Robert H. Smith Vision Prize was established by David Bruce Smith in memory of his father Robert H. Smith z”l, benefactor, visionary, friend, and namesake of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. The Prize is awarded annually to a PhD student whose research best reflects the vision of Robert H. Smith in feeding the world through sustainable agriculture and whose research shows potential for applicability in fields relevant to agriculture, food or environment.
From early childhood, Daria was fascinated by science and passionate about the environment. After her military service she began her BSc studies in Biochemistry and Food Technology at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, finishing summa cum laude. She then went on to obtain an MSc in Biotechnology, studying in Prof. Oded Yarden’s lab at the Smith Faculty. She is currently completing her PhD under the supervision of Prof. Yarden and Prof. Yitzhak Hadar.
Daria’s research goal is to improve a rate-limiting step in the production of 2nd generation biofuels. Unlike the 1st generation, currently used around the world and primarily produced from corn, the 2nd generation is mainly produced from agricultural waste in order to not compete with food production. During its production, there is an important step which increases the amenability of sugars for yeast needed for ethanol production. During that treatment step, toxic compounds are generated which inhibit the yeast. The aim of Daria’s study is to identify novel genes involved in detoxification of key toxic compounds.
Daria explored the abilities of Pleurotus ostreatus, an edible mushroom that harbors unique enzymatic capabilities, such as the ability to degrade 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). She demonstrated that the fungus can detoxify HMF through enzymes involved in lignin degradation, a component of the plant cell wall. The degradation of HMF is both extracellular and intracellular.
During her focus on HMF degradation by P. ostreatus, Daria identified a family of Small Secreted Proteins (SSPs) that were produced during the fungus exposure to the chemical. Genetic manipulation of SSP production resulted in direct effects on large enzymatic families of lignin degrading enzymes. This suggests that SSPs function as the first discovered regulators of the ligninolytic system.
The data obtained from Daria’s research may lay the foundation for future expression of the genes of choice in yeast, thereby improving biofuel production.