Five Questions: Turning Microbes Into Micro Refineries

Synthetic biologist Reshma Shetty predicts that we will eventually engineer organisms to grow everything that we manufacture today.

By Amy Barth|Monday, October 12, 2009
Image: Christopher Churchill

A few years ago, biological engineer Reshma Shetty raised eyebrows at MIT when she helped some undergraduate students engineer batches of E. coli bacteria to smell like wintergreen and bananas. But that was just the start. Now leading a company called Ginkgo BioWorks, Shetty is wrangling microbes to create new kinds of fuel—and that's just the beginning. “If you want to build a chair, you go cut down a tree and construct it from lumber. Why not just program a tree to grow a chair?” she asks.

You treat biology like an engineer’s tool kit. How does that work? There’s all this genome sequencing data from different organisms all over the world. Think of that as a parts list. These organisms each have cool things that they do. If I want to build a system for biofuel, I can pull out enzymes that produce the fuel and put the parts together in different ways until I get yields high enough to compete with oil.

How did you get into this field? During my grad school interview, Tom Knight, who became my adviser, captured my attention instantly. He said, “Hey, we’re going to turn biology into an engineering discipline—figure out what we can build and how to simplify things.” The stuff we’ll be able to engineer 100 years from now will be beyond imagination.

Will everyone have access to these tools? My company’s primary customers are big corporations in the biofuel and specialty chemical industries. But long-term we want to democratize access so anyone can engineer biology. Maybe you want to test peanut butter for salmonella contamination. My focus is to build communities of people who use this technology with the right set of values.

What if some of the engineered creatures don’t do what we program them to do? Should I worry? You have to worry if your machine, computer, bridge—anything engineered—does something you don’t expect. But safety issues in bioengineering will be more complex because of biology’s unique ability to self-replicate.

When you aren’t redesigning biology, what do you do? I’m into kickboxing. Punching, takedowns, weapons, practical self defense—it’s a great way to vent work frustration.

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