Written by: Karmella Haynes.
Michael Jewett from Northwestern University dreams of quickly engineering living systems to produce useful things. He asked why it is so difficult to make living systems produce what we want. Perhaps we don’t yet know enough about how natural systems work. Perhaps living cells are unwieldy in their complexity. Maybe whenever we engineer one part of the system, this change ends up shifting a connected process (intracellular flux) that poisons the cell and hampers engineering.
Rather than struggling with the whole cell to operate engineered networks, Mike’s research group extracts the ‘goo’ from cells that harbors useful internal machinery (DNA, ribosomes, RNA, etc.). A single cell hardly has enough machinery (about 1 cubic micrometer…1 thousandth of a cubic millimeter) to produce chemicals and fuels at scale for human needs. In Mike’s lab, students typically work with 1,000,000,000,000 times that volume (1 milliliter). Industry (as of 2012) uses as much as 100 liters (100,000 times more than Mike’s students’ experiments) of cell goo for bio-production.