Research into biofuels and antibacterial resistance power two CBE faculty promotions

Written by
Scott Lyon and Molly A. Seltzer
May 18, 2022

Princeton CBE has promoted two faculty members, Mark Brynildsen and José Avalos, effective July 1.

Brynildsen was promoted to professor of chemical and biological engineering. Since joining Princeton in 2010, he has led groundbreaking investigations into antibiotic failure and alternative strategies to treat infections. He has also developed an undergraduate course on antibiotic resistance and won accolades as a teacher and mentor.

Avalos was promoted to associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. He has established himself as a leading expert in the use of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering to advance new forms of clean energy and sustainable manufacturing.

Mark Brynildsen

Brynildsen’s research includes a deep exploration of the bacterial behavior called persistence, where a subset of cells survive conventional drug treatment despite not having resistant genes. Persisters help give rise to chronic infections and pose an especially severe threat to people with compromised immune systems. One Brynildsen-led study illuminated the multiple pathways a cell has to becoming a persister, pointing the way to more comprehensive treatment. Another study showed that persisters were more likely than other cells to produce resistant offspring, underscoring the urgent need to study these cells in greater depth. His group has also explored new approaches to therapies that draw on fundamental insights into host-pathogen interactions, such as leveraging cells’ own chemical byproducts to make them more susceptible to the body’s defenses.

In 12 years, Brynildsen has advised 28 senior thesis projects and eight Ph.D.s. He served for more than two years as the department’s director of undergraduate studies, much of that through the most trying phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, he was awarded for excellence in graduate student mentoring, and he has previously been recognized by the School of Engineering and Applied Science for excellence in teaching. Brynildsen currently serves as vice chair and, starting next year, will serve as chair of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ food, pharmaceutical and bioengineering division. In 2015, he won a Howard B. Wentz, Jr. Junior Faculty Award and an NSF-CAREER Award.

Brynildsen is an associated faculty member in the Department of Molecular Biology and holds affiliations in the Lewis-Sigler Institute’s quantitative and computational biology program and the School of Public and International Affairs’ global health program. He joined Princeton as an assistant professor, and he was promoted to associate professor in 2017. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles and a B.S. from Rutgers University, with both degrees in chemical engineering.

José Avalos

In his research, Avalos has pioneered the use of light-responsive systems, known as optogenetics, to control microbial chemical production by switching genes on and off at strategic intervals. He has also developed the use of subcellular organelles, both natural and synthetic, to enhance metabolic pathways for chemical production. He has used these strategies to accelerate the production of advanced biofuels, such as isobutanol and isopentanol, as well as other commodity and specialty chemicals. He works with yeast and bacteria, enhancing their ability to metabolize plant matter into useful chemicals. In one recent study, his research team created a tool for rapidly selecting highly productive yeast strains, breaking open a key bottleneck for biofuels. Another recent study showed how light can control yeast and bacteria simultaneously, optimizing the co-cultures to be more stable and efficient at chemical production than either organism is on its own.

Avalos most recently won the 2022 young investigator award from the American Chemical Society's biochemical technology division. He was awarded a 2019 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, a 2018 NSF-CAREER Award and a 2017 Howard B. Wentz, Jr. Junior Faculty Award from Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. He has also received awards from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences in 2017.

Avalos joined the Princeton faculty in 2015. He currently serves as the director of undergraduate studies for Princeton CBE and holds affiliations in the Department of Molecular Biology and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. Avalos received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University, an M.Sc. in biochemical research from Imperial College-London and a BSE in chemical engineering from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.