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EMSL Researchers Awarded Funding to Study Pathogenic Threats to the Nation

Projects will focus on mitigating biothreats to human health, bioenergy crops


Three EMSL researchers are part of projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s to study biothreats. (Illustration by imaginima for

Three scientists working at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) were awarded over $11 million to study pathogens and help the nation prepare for biothreats.

Margaret Cheung, James Evans, and Ljiljana Paša-Tolić are among the scientists funded to lead research teams at EMSL and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which houses the EMSL user facility.

These projects are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) $112 million Biopreparedness Research Virtual Environment (BRaVE) initiative. BRaVE is designed to build on prior research successes to combat COVID-19.

Cheung will co-lead a $10.8 million project to develop a model platform that studies the molecular interactions between hosts and pathogens. Evans is one of the researchers who will work on this multi-institutional team.

This “Google Earth”-like platform will model cyanobacteria P. marinus and constantly adapting pathogens, providing scientists with rapid information about the spatial features of host–pathogen interactions, including the ability to look at molecular details.

The EMSL capabilities to be used for this project include artificial intelligence and machine learning for molecular and systems modeling, genomic sequencing to follow evolutionary change of pathogens, cryogenic transmission electron microscopy to develop molecular images of the pathogens, multi-omics dataset analysis, and computational chemistry support from the NWChem software program.

In another project, Paša-Tolić will lead a team to examine and characterize molecular interactions between sorghum and the fungal pathogen, C. sublineola, by using EMSL mass spectrometry. This project is designed to provide insights into plant–pathogen interactions to scale up production of bioenergy crops. This team will integrate systems biology, biomolecular characterization, and synthetic biology to understand how plant pathogens affect crops such as sorghum.