Jack Pronk receives the 2024 Novozymes Prize

The Novo Nordisk Foundation proudly announces Professor Jack Pronk as the recipient of the 2024 Novozymes Prize for his groundbreaking contributions to industrial biotechnology. His transformative research in yeast physiology and metabolic engineering has not only revolutionised biofuel and chemical production but has also provided critical solutions to longstanding challenges in sustainable bioprocesses.

At the turn of the century, as the world faced the looming climate crisis spurred by fossil-fuel consumption, the importance of alternative fuels became increasingly apparent. Bioethanol emerged as a promising solution, yet its production from non-food sources posed significant challenges.

"It had been a dream for decades to establish a biobased economy utilising microorganisms. An example is producing fuel ethanol from sugar using yeast, which efficiently converts glucose into ethanol. However, this approach was controversial because unlimited expansion could lead to competition with food production," explains Jack Pronk, Professor and Head of the Department of Biotechnology at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.

Although yeast could efficiently turn sugars from fruits and other edible sources into bioethanol, the metabolism of sugars from agricultural waste streams posed a critical hurdle for economical bioethanol conversion, since traditional yeast strains struggled to utilise pentose sugars, which are abundant in agricultural residues.

In a groundbreaking collaboration with fellow microbiologist Huub Op den Camp from Radboud University Nijmegen, Jack Pronk discovered a potential solution in an unlikely source - the anaerobic fungus Piromyces sp. strain E2, isolated from the faeces of an Indian elephant. This fungus harboured a xylose isomerase gene that held the key to unlocking the pentose challenge.

"The result initiated years of research, increasingly involving collaboration with the company DSM," states Jack Pronk. "Through this process, baker’s yeast was adapted for processing pentose sugars from agricultural waste streams."

"Jack Pronk is one of Europe’s foremost leaders in innovative, sustainable biotechnology using microbes for environmentally friendly conversion of waste streams into biofuels and fine chemicals. The fundamental research and the knowledge generated about the functioning of yeast and fungi from Jack Pronk’s laboratory has been the basis for a wide range of commercial applications with clear societal impact, as demonstrated by their full-scale industrial implementation. The Novo Nordisk Foundation is proud to recognise Jack Pronk’s excellence in research with the 2024 Novozymes Prize," says Professor Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

By 2010, the modified yeast could efficiently convert the most important sugars from plant residues into ethanol, paving the way for sustainable biofuel production technologies. Despite setbacks in large-scale implementation, Jack Pronk believes that the production of ethanol from agricultural residues will make a comeback. Ethanol is not only useful as a transport fuel but also as a precursor for compounds ranging from ethylene to aviation fuel.

"I do see a future for ethanol, produced by low-emission technologies, as a generic feedstock for production of food protein, pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. There is huge potential for its production from agricultural residues. I am convinced that genetically modified microorganisms, be they yeasts, bacteria or fungi, will enable cost-effective and sustainable ethanol production from these feedstocks."

The 2024 Novozymes Prize therefore celebrates Professor Jack Pronk’s exceptional contributions to industrial biotechnology, highlighting his innovative solutions to longstanding challenges and his enduring commitment to sustainable bioprocesses. His work exemplifies the transformative potential of biotechnology in addressing global challenges and building a more sustainable future.

"The advances Jack Pronk has made, especially with using yeast, are based on exceptionally deep knowledge of physiology and metabolism, rooted in rigorous fundamental research. His superb understanding of how a yeast cell operates has directly translated into Jack being able to exploit yeast cells as industrial-level factories for producing fuels and chemicals. He clearly is a world leader in industrial biotechnology and fermentation science, with a specific focus on developing sustainable bioprocesses that help to reduce waste streams and carbon footprint," concludes Professor Detlef Weigel, Chair of the Committee on the Novozymes Prize.

About Professor Jack Pronk

1986 MSc in biology (cum laude), Leiden University
1991 PhD in microbial physiology, TU Delft
1991-1999 Assistant Professor, TU Delft
1999-

Professor of Industrial Microbiology, TU Delft

2002-2013 Co-founder and Scientific Director, Kluyver Centre for
Genomics of Industrial Fermentation
2015 Fellow of the American Society of Microbiology
2015

Professor of Excellence Award, TU Delft

2018 International Metabolic Engineering Award
2019- Head of the Department of Biotechnology, TU Delft
2020 Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences
2021 Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion

About the Novozymes Prize
The Novozymes Prize recognises outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions.

The Prize is awarded annually and is intended to further raise awareness of basic and applied biotechnology research.

The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million (672,000) and comprises a DKK 4.5 million (605,000) research grant and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million (67,000).

The Foundation will award an additional DKK 0.5 million for hosting an international symposium within the recipient’s field(s) of research.

Prof. Jack Pronk

Head of department / Full professor