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NSF funds Emory quest to develop agrochemicals inspired by nature
William Wuest, Emory professor of chemistry

The National Science Foundation has awarded Emory chemistry professor William Wuest $640,000 to further his lab’s development of agrochemicals inspired by compounds found in nature.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $640,000 to William Wuest, Emory professor of chemistry, to further his lab’s development of agrochemicals inspired by compounds found in nature. The goal is to find novel and sustainable ways to combat bacterial and fungal plant pathogens that cause blight, destroying major quantities of food crops. 

A major focus of the Wuest lab is studying natural compounds to uncover new medical treatments to combat the growing problem of bacterial resistance. More recently, the lab has expanded into a search for novel agrochemicals, including both antibacterial and antifungal agents.

Plant diseases and pests already pose major risks to global food security, costing an estimated $220 billion annually. Climate change may accelerate these risks by creating conditions increasingly favorable to pathogens. At the same time, organisms that cause blight keep evolving to resist the treatments that farmers use, causing these practices to fail. 

“Chemists need to continuously identify new methods to sustain current farming practices,” Wuest explains.

His lab members, including graduate student Ricardo Cruz and undergraduate Ben Chiok who are currently working on the agrochemical project, scour the scientific literature for published accounts of natural compounds that show activity against bacteria and/or fungi. They single out the most promising of these compounds to first confirm their activity, then uncover the mechanism by which it works. They also synthesize the active molecules, tweaking their structure to try to identify ways to improve their properties so they can be developed into a potential agrochemical.

“Students gain hands-on experience for how to design potentially better molecules,” Wuest says. “They are engineering the pathway to create something new on a molecular level. It’s similar to an apprenticeship in that they are doing exactly what they would do working as a chemist in a pharmaceutical or agrochemical company.” 

The NSF award will also support two programs that are aimed at further fostering student engagement and career development. 

The first program, dubbed the Bilateral Path between Academic Research and Teaching, or BPART, was co-developed by Wuest and his wife, Liesl Wuest, the director of learning design and technology in the Emory Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. The couple co-teach a fall BPART program for graduate students that guides them through the development of an introductory academic research course.

The graduate students then teach the course they developed to first-year students in the spring. The goal is to demystify the undergraduate research experience — especially for first-generation students and those who have been historically underrepresented in the sciences — and forge a path toward their involvement in an Emory lab while they are undergraduates.

The second program supported by the NSF award is the Emory Biotech Consulting Club, founded by Wuest in 2019. The student-run organization trains graduate students in business development and entrepreneurship by leveraging their critical-thinking skills to answer real-life, complicated market-analysis inquiries. The students provide pro bono consulting services for the Emory Office of Technology Transfer for potential commercialization opportunities and to help expedite start-up companies founded at Emory and supported by the Georgia Research Alliance.

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