EBI Personnel Directory Rao, Christopher

Biofuels Production

Christopher Rao




Chrisopher Rao is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the 2012 recipient of the Outstanding Young Researcher award from the Computing and Systems Technology Division of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Dr. Rao's research group utilizes both computational and experimental approaches to discover how cells process information, and to engineer pathways for novel medical and industrial applications. In addition to his EBI projects, he has appointments with the Institute for Genomic Biology and the Beckman Institute at Illinois.

Before joining the Illinois faculty in 2005, Dr. Rao was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.



Engineering Thermophiles for Biofuel Production

The goal of this project is to develop a thermophilic bacterium for the production of lignocellulosic biofuels. Towards these aims, we have previously developed a suite of genetic tools for engineering the thermophiles from the genus Geobacillus. These tools are being applied to develop Geobacillus for fuel and enzyme productions (started in 2012)

Development of an Oleaginous Yeast for Large-Scale Biodiesel Production

Oleaginous yeast are promising organisms for the production of lignocellulosic biodiesel, as they can accumulate upwards of 80% of their dry weight as lipids. While these organisms possess unique properties that make them ideal in many ways for producing lipids, their applicability for large-scale biodiesel production is limited because these organisms are obligate aerobes. Fermentors need to be sparged with air at exceedingly high rates, thereby limiting the economic feasibility of large-scale processes. This project aims to reduce the oxygen demand during the production of biodiesel precursors in yeast (started in 2012).


Genetic Tools for Thermophiles

The ability to grow at high temperatures makes thermophiles attractive for many fermentation processes. However, the lack of genetic tools makes these organisms difficult to study and, more importantly, to engineer. This project is developing a suite of genetic tools to enable researchers to metabolically engineer thermophiles for the efficient production of diverse biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass.

Robustness to Environmental Heterogeneity – Engineering Strains Optimized for Large-Scale Fermentation

The team in this project worked to genetically engineer E. coli to efficiently and robustly utilize glucose, arabinose, and xylose for the production of diverse biofuels. They characterized multiple-sugar utilization at a single-cell resolution level. They also constructed a computational model of multiple sugar utilization.

Diversity and Physiology of Solventogenic Clostridia

We propose to study the Acetone-Butanol-Ethanol (ABE) fermentation in a diverse set of strains obtained from culture collections as well as industrial strains of solventogenic Clostridia: 1) Obtain a wide selection of existing strains from culture collections that are representative type strains or have been used for industrial fermentations. We intend to build a large collection of strains representing the four main species groups. 2) Obtain a newly isolated set of environmental cultures and strains that are capable of solvent production at mesophilic and thermophilic temperatures. We will supplement the extant strains above by bringing into culture a fresh set of isolates of solventogenic Clostridia with the emphasis on thermophilic bacteria capable of producing alcohols and solvents using enrichments and other standard anaerobic laboratory techniques. 3) Screen the above collections for substrate range, diversity of solvent ratios, yields and titres, phage typing as well as genetic tractability to generate a versatile and adaptable set of isolates for future industrial application. The evaluation of the genetic transformability parameters of strains used in the ABE fermentation such as cell viability, transformation efficiency and frequency of transformation are essential steps to identifying which strains are the most adequate for breeding programs and which strains are best suited for genetic and metabolic engineering approaches to enhancing the ABE fermentation.