UBC graduate student earns forestry innovation award nomination for microorganism research

Amir Kashani, a master’s student in the genome science and technology program at UBC, has been chosen as the Canadian finalist for the Blue Sky Young Researchers Innovation Award.

The award is presented by the International Council of Forest & Paper Associations (ICFPA) every other year. It highlights young researchers in the field of forest-related science and emphasizes creativity, innovation and environmental sustainability. The award has only existed since 2017.

Kashani is a part of the BioFoundry, a research group at UBC that engineers proteins and alters biological processes to produce commercial products such as pharmaceuticals. For his master’s research and thesis, he is engineering microorganisms to produce vanillin and capsaicin. He refers to these as “fine chemicals" — low-volume, high-value products.

Vanillin is the main compound found in vanilla extract and gives it the sweet, warm flavour that we all know and love. It is used primarily as a flavouring agent. Capsaicin is the component of chili peppers that makes them spicy and has applications in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even in the military (think pepper spray). While seemingly very different, these two compounds are closely related – capsaicin can be produced from vanillin. Kashani is working on establishing this process in microorganisms.

With the help of his supervisor, Kashani chose to have these microorganisms feed on lignin, a compound found in wood and bark.

Lignin is removed from wood pulp in the process of producing paper, a process that can be extremely energy intensive. By using lignin as a feedstock for these microorganisms to produce high-value chemicals such as vanillin and capsaicin, the value of ligin is driven up, which Kashani stated was one of his goals.

“It doesn’t happen often where you see the price of waste going up, and the reason that is happening is that as we develop new technologies, we can harness the true value of lignin,” he explained.

There are extensive research efforts being made to utilize lignin as biofuel and even in concrete, but Kashani’s use of lignin in microbial fine chemical production is unique and has the potential to be much more lucrative.

Kashani’s business-minded approach is apparent. He completed his undergraduate studies at the Sauder School of Business before starting his master’s research in science. He stated that his career trajectory was never planned in detail, but that his intention was to evaluate the market and create a product that addresses a gap while exploiting an abundant waste product.

His primary goal after completing his undergrad was to enter a field where he would be able to innovate — he has successfully done so. A lucky turn of events led him to begin his graduate studies with funding from UBC’s ECOSCOPE, a training program for UBC students involved in microbial research.

Going forward, he has plans to start a biotechnology company once he has completed his graduate studies.

The Blue Sky Young Researchers Innovation Award finalists will present their research at the ICFPA’s annual meeting in Vancouver this May.

“I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing Canada. It’s very inspiring for me to be able to represent the country in a competition,” Kashani said about the upcoming finals.