U scoops biochemistry researcher from France

A French academic recently found a home in Minnesota to do environmental research.

Parker Lemke

In the world of French academia, a sizable number of doctoral students struggle to share a small pond of opportunities.

So the University of Minnesota fished a scholar for itself out of the country’s pool of academics.

Colleagues of French native Mikael Elias, an incoming biochemistry assistant professor, say his scientific vigor eventually outgrew available academic positions in his home country, where attaining a prestigious position, like a fine wine or cheese, comes with age.

“Mikael was too bright for the French system [in which] you must wait your turn,” said his mentor, Aix Marseille University structural biology professor Eric Chabrière.

Elias, who holds a joint appointment between the biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics department and the BioTechnology Institute, arrived in Minnesota late last summer.

Once his lab’s renovations and his search for research assistants wrap up, he said he can begin his work on using enzymes and bacteria to address environmental issues.

Elias was hired through the MnDRIVE initiative, an $18 million annual investment focused on developing four research fields at the University, including his specialty, environmental conservation.

The University was looking for candidates who could leverage a deep understanding of molecular chemistry to solve real-world problems like agricultural and industrial chemical pollution, said Larry Wackett, a biochemistry professor who headed the search committee.

“I thought it was going to be very challenging,” he said. “We were fortunate we found just the perfect guy.”

Elias was put on the University’s radar when Dan Tawfik, a biological chemistry professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and Elias’ former mentor, delivered a three-day lecture series on campus and recommended him to recruiters.

“He was always a person you could come to and describe some idea … or something puzzling, and he would have some interesting insights,” Tawfik said.

Elias said he has had to adjust to not only the U.S. higher education system, but life in Minnesota.

In his short time here, he said he has discovered the thrill of American football at TCF Bank Stadium and is curiously awaiting his first Minnesota winter.

“I knew the University of Minnesota through the work of the scientists, but I [knew] nearly nothing about the city,” Elias said. “I just knew about the Minnesota Timberwolves.”

Harnessing bacteria to conserve the environment

Before coming to the University, Elias completed his post-doctoral studies at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Around the time of his departure, the Israel-Gaza conflict was ongoing. Air raid sirens triggered by rockets launched by Hamas militants sounded even in Central Israel, where the institute is located, Elias said.

During his post-doctoral studies, Elias concentrated his research on extremophiles — organisms that live in the world’s harshest conditions, particularly bacteria that survive in arsenic-rich environments.

Though most microorganisms struggle to distinguish the essential nutrient phosphate from similar and potentially harmful compounds like arsenate, Elias’ research showed that some bacteria can selectively exclude arsenate.

Now he said he’s examining how that microorganism’s special properties can be used to scavenge, extract and store phosphate, which modern agriculture depends on to fertilize its crops.

If already limited resources of phosphate are depleted, Wackett said, it could eventually lead to a diminished food supply. He also said phosphate runoff from fields harms the environment.

Engineering bacteria to store phosphate could solve two problems simultaneously, Elias said, by drawing phosphate out of water and reconcentrating it again for use as a fertilizer.

“If he can do something really important in that area, I mean, he would be world-renowned,” Wackett said.

A second major project Elias is working on isolates an enzyme that stops bacteria from communicating.

“The bacteria are now blind,” Elias said. “They don’t know how many they are anymore, so they cannot coordinate any future action.”

Elias said he is working with a company to produce bandages coated in the enzyme, though he said it could also be applied to fight crop infections in an environmentally friendly way.

Growing up in France

Elias was raised in Elzange, a 700-person village in Northeastern France near the German border.

In its lush green slopes and pillowed hills, he developed his fascination with nature and sought to understand its life forms.

When he enrolled at the University of Lorraine in France in 2001, Elias said he initially studied geology.

“Originally I went to the university with the idea of becoming a paleontologist,” Elias said, adding that he eventually decided to redirect his studies. “Slowly, I was shifting towards biology and biochemistry.”

Chabrière, who at the time was a professor at the University of Lorraine, offered Elias a spot in his lab — an unusual opportunity for a first-year student.

“[Normally a] professor would think that you are useless as a freshman,” Elias said. “He really inspired me.”

Three higher education institutions later, Elias has landed at the University of Minnesota, where he continues to use Skype daily with his brother and sister in France and collaborates with colleagues worldwide.

“I would like to develop the lab here and develop myself here,” Elias said, “and help make my department better and help contribute to the University as much as I can.”