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2012 D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award Goes to Lance Seefeldt

Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012

Lance Seefeldt

USU professor and researcher Lance Seefeldt is the recipient of the 2012 D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, USU's highest research honor.

Lance Seefeldt, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Utah State University, is the recipient of the 2012 D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award, USU’s highest research honor.

“Dr. Seefeldt was chosen from an exceptional pool of candidates, which distinguishes him that much more for this honor,” said Mark McLellan, vice president for research and dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

Seefeldt is the third chemist in four years to receive the award.

“It is fair to say that professor Seefeldt is the most influential thinker in the area of nitrogenase enzymology in the world today,” said Paul Ludden, provost and vice president for academics at Southern Methodist University.

Seefeldt’s research is highly notable because it has advanced the understanding of the enzyme nitrogenase, “one of the most important enzymes in the biosphere,” said Alvan Hengge, chair of chemistry and biochemistry at USU.

Nitrogenase provides the only means for living organisms to convert nitrogen, which constitutes 80 percent of the air, into a usable form. Nitrogen gas is extremely inert, making this a very difficult process. Seefeldt has created a new understanding of how a nitrogen molecule is reduced to yield two ammonia molecules by nitrogenase.

“The agronomic and economic and, indeed, human significance of this process can be appreciated from the perspective that the 'fixed nitrogen' of ammonia, along with water, are generally the two limiting nutrients in crop production, and that the lives of about two-thirds of Earth’s population depend on the ammonia produced by nitrogenase,” said Brian Hoffman, professor of chemistry at Northwestern University.

Seefeldt’s discoveries build on decades of work in making headway in this area of research.

Nitrogenase was first purified in the 1960s, but progress in understanding how the catalytic reactions worked has been slow. Although many non-related and important discoveries were made throughout this line of research, the mechanism remained elusive.

“From the chemist’s viewpoint, the challenge of determining the mechanism of nitrogenase became a ‘Holy Grail’ of coordination chemistry,” said Fraser Armstrong, professor of chemistry and fellow of St John’s College at Oxford University.

The development of recombinant DNA in the 1970s added much hype to the idea that, with an understanding of nitrogenase, scientists would be able to produce self-fertilizing crops. But, over the next two decades, even though the structure of the enzyme had been solved, the mechanism remained a mystery.

“It looked like a lost cause, and up to six years ago, the field had once again languished,” said Armstrong. “Lance Seefeldt changed all this.”

In recent years Seefeldt’s research program has been a major contributor to understanding how nitrogen binds to the metal center of the enzyme, and his research has provided significant insights into the step-by-step order of the electron transfer events during the chemical process.

“Using a variety of spectroscopic methods and protein crystallography, his laboratory has made numerous high-profile contributions, including the identification of several key intermediates on the catalytic pathway,” said Hengge.

These results have changed the field’s thinking about how metalloenzymes activate inert, small molecule substrates, and this knowledge will further the search for artificial catalysts.

“Through brilliant experimental design, professor Seefeldt and his collaborators have been successful where others have failed,” said Ludden. “I have heard the word ‘fearless’ used to describe professor Seefeldt, and this is quite an appropriate attribution.”

In addition to his nitrogenase research breakthroughs, Seefeldt has distinguished himself in many other ways throughout his career. Since coming to USU in 1993 Seefeldt has secured more than $4 million in extramural funding for his laboratory.

In total, Seefeldt has presented 72 invited presentations at conferences and universities and has published nearly 100 peer-reviewed manuscripts that have been cited in the scientific literature more than 3,000 times.

“Through his research he will positively impact and enhance the lives of many, many people he will never know,” said Dennis Dean, director of the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech.

While his nitrogenase research continues to thrive, in recent years Seefeldt has initiated a new research program in his laboratory on the feasibility of using algae as a source of biofuels such as biodiesel. With colleagues in engineering, Seefeldt was a major player in the establishment of the USTAR Biofuels team at USU, and is one of its founding members.

Seefeldt’s research, however, has not taken him away from teaching.

“Dr. Seefeldt has an excellent track record of mentoring research students at all levels,” said Hengge. He has trained six doctoral students and four master’s students during his academic career, and he’s mentored six postdoctoral fellows. Seefeldt’s lab has also hosted 25 undergraduate research students.”

Ludden has observed Seefeldt’s work at USU first hand.

“I have visited his laboratory a number of times and have been impressed with the esprit de corp and enthusiasm with which he and his students engage the research problems in the laboratory,” he said.

Seefeldt will be honored at the 2012 Research Awards Gala April 2. The Gala is part of USU’s Research Week, now in its eighth year of highlighting faculty, graduate and undergraduate research. Seefeldt will also be recognized at USU commencement exercises in May.

Also during Research Week is the D. Wynne Thorne Lecture, where David Lancy, professor of anthropology and 2011 award recipient, will give the annual address. His lecture, “Nature Versus Nurture,” will provide an overview of his groundbreaking research on the anthropology of childhood.

Named after USU’s first vice president for research, the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award is given to an individual on the USU campus who has completed outstanding research in his or her career. The award is given annually to one outstanding university researcher who is recommended by a committee of peers and all previous award recipients. Nominees are evaluated for the significance and quality of their research and creative achievement, as well as recognition by national and international experts.

More information about the D. Wynne Thorne Career Research Award is online.

To learn more about Research Week, see the website.

Contacts: Lance Seefeldt, 435-797-3964,
Mark McLellan, 435-797-1180,

Writer: Anna McEntire, 435-797-7680,

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