Who he is
When Mike Scharf began exploring termite digestion, he was searching for targets to enable safer, more environmentally friendly insecticides. In doing so, he discovered a cocktail of enzymes located in the insect's gut that unlocks sugars stored within the cells of woody material. Two enzymes are responsible for the release of glucose and pentose, both sugars. The third enzyme breaks down lignin, a rigid compound in plant cell walls and one of the most significant barriers to tapping sugars contained in the biomass. The implication was that termites' digestive systems could be used to help break down plants more easily for production of biofuels, such as ethanol.
At the time, funding for insecticide-related research was limited, but the market for the creation of alternative fuels was booming. One of the biggest criticisms of corn ethanol, which is produced from the seed of the corn kernel, is that it increases demand for, and subsequently the price of, corn and food production. Conversely, releasing sugar from the nonfood parts of plants makes use of materials that typically are left in the field to decay, and using termites as a source of enzymes to do so had been largely overlooked. For Scharf, Purdue's O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology, shifting research goals was a no-brainer.
What he did
First, Scharf and his research partners identified the termite enzymes responsible for breaking down the plant materials and releasing the sugars. Initially they considered the termite and its protozoan symbionts together, as most efforts that preceded their research ignored the host termite completely. But ultimately, after looking at host enzymes exclusively, the team discovered the enzymes were quite active on their own. They then worked with Chesapeake Protein Expression Recovery Labs (PERL), a protein production company in Maryland, to create synthetic versions. These tests proved that synthetic versions of the termite enzymes also were effective at releasing sugar from the biomass.
"Certainly the symbionts do a lot, but what we've shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by those symbionts," Scharf says. "When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it's like one plus one equals four."
How he did it
Because Scharf's research started when he was working at the University of Florida, he coordinated with representatives at the Purdue Research Foundation
(PRF), its Office of Technology Commercialization
(OTC) and his previous university's analogous department to disclose his discovery and delineate the institutions' ownership of the intellectual property. Disclosure is a requirement for innovations developed with University resources that also serves to protect Purdue's and the developers' rights to benefit from an innovation.
While it's not possible to file patents on individual genes, Scharf and his team were able to develop specific applications for the genes related to breaking down biomass for biofuel and biomaterial production, processes that did receive patents. But Scharf says one of the biggest struggles in science is finding a balance between maintaining secrecy to protect intellectual property and sharing knowledge to retain credibility as an objective researcher.
"If you're not disclosing your discoveries publicly when you can, ultimately you paint yourself into a corner in terms of objectivity and conflicts of interest, even if you're not trying to be deceptive," Scharf says. "On the other hand, it's a very good idea to keep things quiet and make sure information doesn't leave your lab group before you submit your data and disclosure to OTC. It's a tricky landscape to navigate, and you have to be thinking many steps ahead."
"I think being interdisciplinary in your scientific thinking and approach is key," Scharf says. "Doing so allows you to adapt when things change, and for me it's made all the difference in my career."