Biofuels specialist Montaño López wins Princeton’s top graduate student honor

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
Feb. 22, 2024

José de Jesús Montaño López has been named a winner of the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, Princeton University’s top honor for graduate students.

Montaño López was joined by fellow winners Geneva Smith, Pasquale Toscano and Ryan Unger. The Jacobus Fellows will be honored at Alumni Day ceremonies Saturday, Feb. 24.

The fellowships support the students’ final year of study at Princeton and are awarded to one Ph.D. student in each of the four divisions — humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering — whose work has exhibited the highest scholarly excellence. All four fellows plan to pursue academic careers.

Montaño López, a sixth-year doctoral student in chemical and biological engineering who came to Princeton in 2018, earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2018.

His multi-faceted research has already led to several papers in major journals, all focused on using yeast — the same yeast used for thousands of years to bake bread and ferment wine and beer — to produce isobutanol, a biofuel with the potential to replace both gasoline and jet fuel. His dissertation, “Systems Metabolic Engineering for Isobutanol Production in Saccharomyces cerevisiae,” details his efforts toward his goal of improving yeast biofuel production to curb global climate change.

“Compared to bioethanol, isobutanol has higher energy density, it is less corrosive, it can be compatible with current infrastructure for cars and can be upgraded to jet fuel,” said Montaño López. “And we can produce it through microbes! We feed the microbes any sort of natural sugar and they can produce this biofuel, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector and move us toward a more sustainable world.”

In his application for the Jacobus Fellowship, he wrote, “I have always been proud to belong to the Mexican Zapotec community, as it has forged a deep sense of respect for my cultural legacy and traditions. However, being Indigenous also frequently implies being exposed to pressing societal needs, such as the lack of equitable access to basic commodities, which constitutes the main motivation for my career.”

His adviser José Avalos highlighted the need for biofuels and chemicals produced with biotechnology as part of moving away from fossil fuels. “You cannot electrify the transportation sector fast enough to prevent catastrophic increases in global temperatures by the end of the century, so we need biofuels to complement electrification,” said Avalos, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. “You also cannot easily produce petroleum-generated resins or pigments with electricity. We need alternative sustainable solutions to replace petroleum. And biotechnology is that solution, because it has the chemical diversity to produce many different molecules from renewable resources as opposed to fossil resources.”

Avalos described Montaño López as a true artisan, in the best sense of the word. “Artisanal work requires a love for what you do that goes beyond technical aptitude. It also requires being very methodical and caring deeply about doing your best work every day, so that you end up with a beautiful piece of art — or in José’s case, this powerful strain library — that shows the months and years of dedication.”

With meticulous and painstaking work, Montaño López has generated a library of 5,000 genetically modified strains of S. cerevisiae, cataloged by their ability to produce isobutanol.

Avalos praised Montaño López for his unique combination of persistence and outside-of-the-box thinking. “Not just any student could do this kind of work. Most students would not have the patience or dedication to transform 5,000 strains, repeating the experiment more than 5,000 times — because you have to do them more than once — and then analyzing the results of 5,000 strains. I think he’s very bold in taking new approaches to old problems without knowing what he will find at the end. That takes a lot of courage.”

Among his many honors, Montaño López most recently won the top prize for renewable energy from the “Prototypes for Humanity” prizes awarded at COP28 in Dubai. During his first year at Princeton, Montaño López was honored with Mexico’s 2018 National Youth Award, the highest honor given by the government to its citizens under 30 years old. He also received the Gabino Barreda medal, awarded by the 350,000-student National Autonomous University of Mexico to the student with the highest GPA in his graduating class. At Princeton, he has worked as an assistant for instruction in “Fundamentals of Biofuels and Chemical Reaction Engineering,” including helping students transition to online learning in the spring of 2020.

After graduating, he said, his would like his research to focus on the discovery and biosynthesis of complex plant natural products, including medicines, with the goal of more equitable access to medical treatment for all.