DU Alumni

Daphne Preuss using science background to help solve energy problem

Daphne Preuss will receive the Professional Achievement Award at the Founders Day ceremony in March. Photo: Jeffrey Haessler

Most people think of sorghum, if they think of it at all, as feed for cattle and chickens. Geneticist Daphne Preuss (BS ’85) sees it as feedstock for clean biofuels and as a key ingredient to an alternative energy future.

Though the plant has the genes necessary to give it the energy content of top-grade coal, those genes are turned off. Preuss and her team at Chromatin Inc., the biotech company she cofounded, have figured out how to switch them on. “We’ve got a $6 million U.S. Department of Energy contract to do it,” she says.

“Solving the energy problem will take a lot of different things coming together,” says Preuss, who will receive the Professional Achievement Award at the Founders Day ceremony in March. While wind and solar power provide some alternative power, they won’t by themselves suffice, she says. “The wind doesn’t blow all the time; the sun doesn’t shine all the time.”

Sorghum is an ideal crop to help fill the gap because it grows well in substandard conditions — marginal land with little rainfall. “It’s hard to get those lands to produce corn,” she says. In addition, sorghum doesn’t emit toxic mercury or other pollutants, as coal does.

Preuss credits much of her success to the University of Denver, which gave her an offer of admission and a scholarship when she had nowhere to turn. She had been a top student at Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., but applied to only one school — Yale. “When I got rejected, I had no backup,” she says.

Her mother took her to DU and asked for a meeting with Dwight Smith, then-chairman of the chemistry department. Smith quickly realized he was looking at talent.

“I remember two things about her very clearly,” says Smith, now a research professor, a professor emeritus of chemistry and a chancellor emeritus. “She was extremely bright, and she was extremely motivated toward a career in science. We love to get students with those characteristics. I thought that there had to be a way to get her in.”

He left the room, telling Preuss, “I’ll be right back.” When he returned, he had both an acceptance and a scholarship. The acceptance was obtained with a call to admission. The scholarship came from a fund established by DU alumna Broda Barnes.

“I knew how much was in the fund,” Smith says. “I found out how much Daphne needed and was able to tip the scale in favor of her enrolling.”

Preuss went on to graduate school at M.I.T. and postdoctoral work at Stanford. She became a full professor at the University of Chicago in her 30s. She left academia to found Chromatin, which employs more than 100 people and is growing sorghum on some 3 million acres through seed sales and contractual arrangements with farmers. Preuss also holds more than 50 patents.

She looks back to DU as the place that gave her the critical break. “Dwight took the meeting with us, and I will always be grateful,” she says. “He made an exception and helped get me in. Without that, I might not have gone to college.”


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