McKinlay received the DOE's prestigious award for early-career, tenure-track scholars during his first year on the faculty of the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences Department of Biology at Bloomington.
The five-year award provided $750,000 to McKinlay to investigate how two microbial species might work better together than alone in producing hydrogen gas biofuel.
The DOE award helped McKinlay and his lab members identify factors that govern cooperative relationships between microbes. Specifically, they identified factors that determine hydrogen gas production levels. They developed a defined community of two bacterial species locked into a relationship where one could not grow without the other. The two species exchanged essential nutrients and together converted plant-derived sugars into hydrogen gas, a potential biofuel.
Their research also unexpectedly discovered that an ethanol-producing bacterium could use nitrogen gas as a nutrient. If scaled up, using this bacterium with nitrogen gas could potentially save an ethanol production facility over $1 million annually.
The DOE Early Career Research Program supported McKinlay's ability to design a sustainable "cooperative" relationship between bacteria species. This design was key in earning him National Science Foundation CAREER Award funding of $1.15 million in 2018 for his research into how bacteria cooperate or compete over nutrients.
"Bacteria often work together in nature to break down complex compounds or perform special tasks," McKinlay said. "There are times where it might make more sense to use a community of microbes rather than trying to engineer a single organism that 'does it all.'"
In addition to producing biofuels and other useful chemicals, bacterial interactions are an important component of human health, and in some cases, disease.
When McKinlay joined IU Biology as an assistant professor in 2011, IU Professor of Biology Clay Fuqua—who served on McKinlay’s search committee—noted that McKinlay’s research was at the forefront of a new era of microbial physiology. McKinlay is now an associate professor with the department. He and his lab continue to remain at the forefront of microbial discovery.