Industrial hemp has had a long and colorful history as a cash crop; Thomas Jefferson was a strong advocate for hemp, believing that â€œhemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the countryâ€. He also was an inventor of the â€œhemp breakâ€, an early processing tool used to harvest stalk fibers for use as textiles and in rope. Henry Ford also recognized the value of hemp to the US economy, having developed a hemp-based automobile in 1941 that used hemp fibers to reinforce auto body panels and interior plastics as a means to reduce weight, improve fuel economy and encourage sustainability.
Here in Virginia and nationally in the US, hemp is finally enjoying a long overdue renaissance as a major cash crop that can dramatically and positively impact the food, agriculture and industrial materials sectors, creating jobs and new industries for Virginia. Students working on this project with work in a highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary team that will learn how to harvest and process hemp for industrial applications in renewable bioplastics, building materials and textiles. Specifically, students will learn techniques for separation and harvesting of value-added fibers from hemp stalk, and work with the PI (Berger) to engineer enzymes that improve separation of inner and outer stalk fibers. Laboratory techniques will include directed evolution, protein expression and purification, as well as assay development. Currently, separation of fibers from stalk is a major challenge, and one that limits the industrial-scale production of hemp-based products. Students will gain hands-on skills and training in a new, emerging and exciting field, and also seek to develop technologies to improve hemp processing that can be commercialized.
Work activities include:
1. Processing hemp fibers
2. Expressing and purifying recombinant proteins
3. Performing directed evolution methods to modify enzyme substrate specificity
4. Developing assays to determine improvements in enzyme activity and specificity
5. Working with stakeholders (growers, processors) to learn what challenges exist in hemp processing
Some prior experience with molecular biology, such as recombinant DNA manipulation, subcloning, protein expression and purification. Most importantly, students should have enthusiasm, an open mind and a willingness to take on new challenges and be flexible to change.
1. How to process hemp fibers
2. How to express and purify recombinant proteins
3. How to implement a directed evolution design and selection strategy