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From Classroom to Culture: Zach Eliason’s Berlin Internship

Working with an international team at Zayt Bioscience in Berlin, Germany, Zach Eliason (BIO ’23) used yeast microbes to produce palm oil alternatives. The focus of his research was to help mitigate the harmful environmental effects of oil palm tree farming in Indonesia and Malaysia. As a recipient of the Life Sciences Student Internship Grant, Eliason was able to make valuable contributions to the team and engage with a global science community.

A group of people smile while sitting at the edge of a waterway
Photo by Zach Eliason

Eliason used his unique skill set in bioinformatics to write a multi-sequence alignment program that shows where homologous genes diverged across different yeast species. The company researchers used this tool to simultaneously line up and compare genes across more than a hundred species

Additionally, Eliason wrote a program to identify gene promoters within a genome and rank them by promoter strength. He then wrote a neural network that learned from the strongest promoters to create strong, new synthetic promoter sequences. Eliason’s contributions facilitated the company’s ability to increase a yeast species' expression of genes that imitate the natural palm oil. Computational approaches like Eliason's are more cost-effective than testing each individual synthetic promoter in a lab. The pipeline computationally identified potential promoters that could then be thoroughly validated at the bench..

Integrating German culture and living in the biotech hub of Europe made Eliason's internship especially remarkable. He loved using public transportation to get around Berlin and relished the opportunity to shop with the locals at the grocery store. The public parks and night life, with its performers and musicians, were also highlights of the trip.

A man in a white shirt with black pants walks through a park with a cobblestone pathway.
Photo by Zach Eliason

Through the internship and classes at BYU, Eliason has learned how scientific principles connect to his faith. “You can talk about our stewardship and our duty as saints along with scientific principles of conservation and biology,” he shared. “When I lined up the genomes of hundreds of microbes on my laptop and saw how many genes were conserved in distant species, I was just like, oh my gosh, evolution is so beautiful.”

Eliason is grateful to the donors who made his trip possible. “It's honestly striking that BYU has so many opportunities to be abroad,” he said. “It's thanks to the grants and scholarships you can get that make it a feasible opportunity.”