Trent Northen

Director of High Throughput Biochemistry

Research Focus

High throughput Enzyme activity screening
Developing cost effective methods for deconstructing plant biomass into fermentable sugars is critical to viable cellulosic biofuels. Unfortunately, the potential combinations of plant feedstocks, pre-treatment options and hydrolytic enzymes greatly complicate the efficient and effective determination of optimal deconstruction strategies. To address this challenge we have developed a nanoliter-scale acoustic sample deposition and nanostructure-initiator mass spectrometry (NIMS) analysis platform to rapidly detect and characterize glyco- and lignolytic enzyme activities and substrate specificities.  We are applying this approach for analysis of in vitro and cell based expression systems to quickly screen large libraries of enzymes against a wide range of substrates including native plant biomasses.  This effort will serve as the foundation in the development of this new technology that will have several applications, including enzyme “cocktail” engineering for enhanced performance in industrially relevant biorefining operating environments for the production of sugars from biomass.

High throughput mass spectrometry based metabolite screening
Metabolite profiling using mass spectrometry provides an attractive approach for the interrogation of microbial metabolic capabilities to discover and optimize microbial enzymes and for the production of biofuels. A challenge to this approach is the disconnect between the rate of clone production vs. specific functional analysis. Typically, pooled assays or selections are required to down select libraries prior to chemically specific analysis using mass spectrometry. Our group is now extending the acoustic printing NIMS screening platform for direct analysis of important classes of metabolites for biofuel production. This will enable a direct read-out to support the development of high performance microbes for cost effective fuel production.

Learn more about Trent Northen’s research here:

For more information, visit High Throughput Biochemistry at JBEI.


  • Utilize MS Chip based assays to support the development of high performance lignocellulolytic enzymes (cellulases, hemicellulases and lignanases) screened across a matrix of conditions (T, pH, IL stability) to understand the protein features that impart ionic liquid tolerance
  • Develop chip based assays to perform high throughput biofuel and bioproduct production

Featured Media

JBEI Expert Trent Northen discusses nanostructure-initiator mass spectrometry 

Northen Among Eight Berkeley Lab Winners of 2013 R&D100 Awards

JBEI’s Director of Array-based Assays, Trent Northen, has been recognized with an R&D 100 Award as the co-inventor of the Nanostructure-Initiator Mass Spectrometry (NIMS) technology.

NIMS is a highly sensitive method used to study metabolites and the products of enzymatic reactions in biological systems.

HT-NIMS screening, co-developed at JBEI, is a high-speed mass spectrometry technology that researchers can use to discover the function of large numbers of biologically active molecules. At speeds 100 times faster than that of conventional probes, it can rapidly screen tens of thousands of enzymatic biomass deconstruction reactions that could be used to turn grass into biofuel.

A workhorse of biotechnology, mass spectrometry (MS) offers unparalleled accuracy, but its potential as a screening tool has been limited by its slow throughput. HT-NIMS dramatically speeds up the process.

Tiny samples are deposited in rows and columns on a slide of silicon created a microarray of as many as 10,000 discrete sites. Each site is shot with a laser and analyzed in a split second. In the time it takes conventional MS to characterize one sample, HT-NIMS can profile hundreds, cost-effectively.

HT-NIMS is being used at JBEI to screen for enzymes that can be used to modify lignocellulose for the production of advanced biofuels that could replace gasoline on a gallon-for-gallon basis.  MORE>

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