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Dr. Nerya Zexer

Nerya Zexer

Penn State University

Plant Power 

Dr. Nerya Zexer, Va’adia-BARD postdoc at Pennsylvania State University, is studying the Molecular Effects of Lignin on Cellulose Deconstruction to Improve Biofuel Production with Prof. Charles Anderson as his host. 

What is the focus of your postdoc work?  

In my research, I study the dynamics of cellulases - cellulose degrading enzymes - using single-molecule tracking. Cellulose is the major component in the cell walls of plants and holds great potential as a source of renewable energy. The efficient conversion of cell walls into bioenergy relies on the enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose, but the plant cell wall is a complex composite and highly recalcitrant to degradation. Using a multimodal SCATTIRSTORM microscope, I track the motility of fluorescently labeled cellulases as they hydrolyze cellulosic substrates. I am especially interested in understanding how other cell wall polymers, like lignin and xylan, interfere with cellulose degradation.  

When did your interest in biofuels solutions started? 

The plant cell wall is a fascinating field of study. I was first introduced to it during my Ph.D. work. Looking to combine my interest in plant biology with meaningful research that can have real-world impact led me to pursue this direction.  

What are your plans once you complete your postdoctoral work? 

After this phase of my career, I aim to find a research position and continue to explore the potential of cell walls for bioeconomy. Ideally, I would like my work to bridge fundamental science and its applications. 

How do you oversee the outputs project to be applied in the field? 

Lignocellulosic feedstocks include dedicated bioenergy crops as well as agricultural waste. Current cellulase enzymes are not efficient enough and therefore are not cost-effective in many cases. The main goal of my work is to gain new insights into how the composition and architecture of lignocellulose biomass affects the activities of cellulases. This will help engineer enzymes that are optimized for efficient and cost-effective bioenergy production. 

What tip would you give someone just beginning a career in agricultural research?

My tip is to do your best not to limit yourself to a narrow research niche that you feel comfortable in. Don’t be afraid of exploring new fields of study and trying out new tools and methods. You can’t tell where the next good idea will come from.