Written by: Karmella Haynes.
The CSH Synthetic Biology course and CSH Yeast Genetics and Genomics course co-hosted a talk by world-renowned synthetic biology scientist Jay Keasling. He uses synthetic biology to address global needs for accessible medicines and energy.
Jay Keasling is the founder of Amyris, which launched a system that uses engineered yeast to produce the anti-malaria drug artemisinin. Jay described a “miraculous” series of unexpected events, where transferring a key plant enzyme into yeast not only completed several metabolic steps that they had not expected, the yeast pumped out the desired end-product into the growth medium. While the product was toxic to yeast, this was convenient for the scientists to collect the compound. The system eventually enabled affordable scale-up…as of 2013, 35 tons of artemisinin has been produced (enough for 70 million people).
Jay currently applies a similar platform to produce motor vehicle fuel from living cells. His target molecule is isopentanol. One of the key challenges in this project is regulation of the function of each enzyme that converts one molecule into another along the molecular assembly line for isopentanol. One of Jay’s team members engineered a fluorescent signal-producing system to help visualize levels of enzyme activity. In spite of the challenges of using a finicky living cell as a fuel factory, one should appreciate the beauty of harvesting gasoline by skimming it off the top of a living culture, rather than drilling into the earth for petroleum.
Jay emphasized an important goal for any industry-related synthetic biology project: to make the molecules industry needs rather than just ones we (as scientists) are able to make. They must be useful and compatible as “drop-in” components for currently existing pipelines.