Two NatSci professors receive MSU Innovation awards

Published April 13, 2017

Two faculty members from the College of Natural Science (NatSci) were among the honorees at the 7th annual Michigan State University Innovation Celebration on April 12. The MSU Innovation Center recognized researchers, faculty and students for their highly innovative technologies, intellectual property creation and technology transfer activity.

James Dye, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of chemistry, was the recipient of the MSU Technology Transfer Achievement Award for his work in alkali metal interactions with solvents or complexants. Gregg Howe, an MSU Foundation Professor and faculty member of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) and the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory (PRL), was awarded the Innovation of the Year award for his pioneering work in plant defense.

James Dye, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the NatSci Department of Chemistry, received the 2017 MSU Technology Transfer Achievement Award for his work in alkali metal interactions with solvents and complexants.

Dye, who has been with MSU for almost 64 years, is most well-known for his work with alkali metals, earning him recognition as “the discoverer of alkalides and electrides.” In 2005 Dye, along with research collaborator, Michael Lefenfeld, co-founded SiGNa Chemistry, Inc. The company transforms pure alkali metals into safe, easy-to-use materials with applications in industrial chemistry. Dye’s scientific accomplishments in research and teaching led to his election as a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“I was both pleased and surprised to receive this award for the application of our research to a successful start-up company,” Dye said. “Alkali metals, such as sodium, have been a main object of our research since I joined the MSU chemistry department in 1953. The driving force for this research by me and many collaborators [students, postdocs, other MSU faculty and external sponsors of sabbatical leave research] was the fun of developing new materials and methods in an area of chemistry that had been classified as ‘closed’ for more than 100 years.”

Based on the work of many chemists in the area of solvated electrons and the development of compounds that can trap alkali cations, Dye (and others) found that alkali metal anions such as Na- form in solution. This led to the Dye lab’s development of alkalides (crystalline salts that contain both trapped alkali cations and alkali anions) and electrides (in which the anions are trapped electrons).

“The application to industrial chemistry was made in close interaction with SiGNa Chemistry, Inc., co-founder, Michael Lefenfeld,” Dye added. “He not only collaborated on the research, but also led the development of this successful business venture.”

Gregg Howe, MSU Foundation Professor and faculty member in the NatSci Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, received the 2017 MSU Innovation of the Year Award for his pioneering work in plant defense.

Howe has become an internationally recognized leader in research on plant hormone biology and plant-insect interactions since joining the MSU faculty in 1997. He uses a combination of genetic, cell biological, molecular, and biochemical analyses to study how plants use defensive compounds to thwart insect attack. Howe’s research program is funded by major grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The contributions he has made to his field have been recognized with such honors as his being named a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The award recognizes a new technology that stems from our lab’s research showing that certain genetic modifications can effectively uncouple the antagonistic relationship between plant growth and defense,” Howe said. “If the approach can be successfully replicated in crop plants grown under natural field conditions, it may open up exciting avenues for improving agricultural yield.”

After filing a patent application describing how this technology may be used to boost the production of food and other plant-derived products, Howe said was pleasantly surprised to learn that this idea was selected as the ‘Innovation of the Year’ by the MSU Innovation Center.

“I have really enjoyed working with the MSU Technologies office over the years on various projects, and I’m grateful to all the students and collaborators who made this possible.”

Awardees were presented with plaques and cash prizes.

The event also showcased other technologies and startups from MSU students and faculty members, including the concussion technology of NatSci chemistry professors Gary Blanchard and Marcos Dantus, NatSci BMB/PRL professor Gregg Howe's use of dominant mutations in MYC transcription factors for plant biotechnology, and NatSci physics and astronomy professor Chong-Yu Ruan's advanced electron microscopy.

For more information about the 7th Annual Innovation Celebration, including images and videos of winners, please visit http://innovationcenter.msu.edu/events/2017-innovation-celebration.