Synthetic biologists are the computer programmers of biology. Their code? DNA.
The whole enterprise sounds fantastical: you insert new snippets of DNA code—in the form of a chain of A, T, C, G letters—into an organism, and bam! Suddenly you have bacteria that can make anti-malaria drugs or cells that can solve complicated logic problems like a computer.
Except it’s not that simple. The basis of synthetic biology is DNA—often a lot of it, in the form of many genes. Making an average gene from scratch costs several hundreds of dollars and weeks of time. Imagine a programmer taking a month to type a new line of code, and you’ll likely understand a synthetic biologist’s frustration… Continue reading.
Keasling is the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering, associate laboratory director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, director of UC Berkeley’s Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) and CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville,. A pioneer in synthetic biology, his inventions resulted in engineered microbes to produce the world’s first low-cost antimalarial drug. A holder of 32 U.S. patents, his patent rights have catalyzed the commercial development of products in other fields, including specialty chemicals such as emollients, lubricants and biofuels. He is co-founder of Amyris Biotechnologies, LS9, Lygos and Codon Devices.
A project begun some 13 years ago by Jay Keasling, the Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences at Berkeley Lab and the CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), was culminated with an announcement on August 12 from the partnership of Sanofi, the multinational pharmaceutical company, and PATH, the nonprofit global health organization. Sanofi/PATH announced the shipment of 1.7 million treatments of semi-synthetic artemisinin to malaria-endemic countries in Africa. Unlike conventional artemisinin, which is derived from the bark of the sweet wormwood plant, this synthetic version of the World Health Organization’s frontline antimalarial drug is derived from yeast. The addition of a microbial-based source of artemisinin to the botanical source provides a stable new option for treating the millions of victims who are stricken with malaria each year, most of them children.
UC Berkeley professor and synthetic-biology pioneer Jay Keasling was on Capitol Hill Thursday, stressing the need for a federal strategy to ensure continued U.S. leadership in a field he said can yield significant medical benefits for people throughout the world, “and even save lives.”
Keasling, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering and senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, led a team of scientists in engineering a microbial production process for artemisinin, an effective — but, in many parts of the world, prohibitively expensive — therapy for malaria. The disease takes nearly a million lives each year, mostly children under the age of 5. His team’s synthetic-biology process has been licensed to Sanofi-Aventis, which has scaled the process to industrial levels and is on track, he said, to meet roughly half the world’s need for the drug by next year.
Keasling — who also serves as director of the National Science Foundation-funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, and as CEO of the Energy Department-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute — appeared at a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The session, titled “Policies to Spur Innovative Medical Breakthroughs From Laboratories to Patients,” invited experts to speak on the need for both private and public investments in biomedical-science research and development.
Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering and the chief executive officer of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, was in Israel last week to deliver a keynote address at an international conference on biofuels.
The Agro-Energy Nexus Summit, in the city of Herzilya, was convened by the Fuel Choices Initiative in the Israeli prime minister’s office and the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, in cooperation with the Ministry of Economy.
Keasling also delivered a lecture to a standing-room-only audience at the Weizmann Institute of Science on “The Bold Future of Alternative Energy,” and spoke at a gathering of the recently established Berkeley Club of Israel.
What if we could get our gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel from yeast instead of from oil wells? That’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it’s already happening on a small scale. And there’s a vigorous research effort to ramp this up on a massive scale.
One of the more innovative approaches uses a new technology called “synthetic biology.” Jay Keasling is one of the leaders in this hot field.
With his supershort crew cut and friendly demeanor, Keasling would fit in nicely where he grew up — on a corn farm in Nebraska that’s been in his family for generations. But these days you’ll find him in a glistening building in Emeryville, Calif., home to several of his many endeavors.
Among the many hats Keasling wears is that of associate laboratory director for biosciences at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He’s also CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, director of the Synthetic Biology Research Center, and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Not to mention founder of three biotechnology companies — Amyris, LS9 and Lygos.
“My research [focus], since I’ve been at Berkeley for the past 20 years, is, ‘How do you engineer chemistry within cells?’ ” Keasling says. “I really believe you can use microbes as little chemical factories to produce almost anything we want.”
Chemical Engineering Professor at University of California, Berkeley Honored for Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) named Dr. Jay Keasling as the recipient of its 2013 George Washington Carver Award for innovation in industrial biotechnology.
A panel selected Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at University of California, Berkeley; associate laboratory director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute; and director of Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, for his contributions to the field of synthetic biology promoting the use of engineering microbes to produce biofuels, medicines and even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grasses.
Twelve years after a breakthrough discovery in his UC Berkeley laboratory, professor of chemical engineering Jay Keasling is seeing his dream come true.
On April 11, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi will launch the large-scale production of a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical critical to making today’s front-line antimalaria drug, based on Keasling’s discovery.
The drug is the first triumph of the nascent field of synthetic biology and will be, Keasling hopes, a lifesaver for the hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who each year contract malaria and more than 650,000, most of them children, who die of the disease. Synthetic biology involves inserting a dozen or more genes into microbes to make them produce drugs, chemicals or biofuels that they normally would not.
Each year, 300 to 500 million cases of malaria are diagnosed worldwide, of which 1.5 to three million, mostly in children, result in death. Drugs to treat malaria are too expensive for people in developing countries, hence the lack of proper treatment and the high mortality rate. Fortunately, a new, much less expensive anti-malarial drug will surface in the market in 2012, thanks to synthetic biologist Jay Keasling and his team at UC Berkeley. Developing this product is just one among many goals of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), where scientists are working to create efficient biofuels, biosensors, and cures for cancer and HIV.
Editor’s Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.
Quotable Jay Keasling: “The carpets, the paint on the walls, the ceiling tiles, we have the potential to produce all of these products from sugar.”
Who is he: Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, is engineering microbes – single cell organisms like yeast and E. coli – to produce biofuels, medicines, even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grass.
In addition to teaching bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Jay is CEO of the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California.
Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Jay Keasling, the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor in Biochemical Engineering, has been named a recipient of an 18th Annual Heinz Award.
Established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards celebrate the accomplishments and spirit of the senator by recognizing the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the areas of greatest importance to him. The award includes a medallion and an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000.
The awards, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation, annually recognize individuals for their contributions in the areas of Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment. Keasling won in the technology category.
Designer microbes regulate their own pathways to optimize fuel production, boosting yields threefold.
Give bacteria a bit of self-awareness and they can be smarter about producing biofuel.
That’s the conclusion from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who report a genetic sensor that enables bacteria to adjust their gene expression in response to varying levels of key intermediates for making biodiesel. As a result, the microbes produced three times as much fuel. Such a sensor-regulator system could eventually make advanced biofuels cheaper and bring them a step closer to being an economically viable replacement to petroleum-based products.
One issue that has limited the amount of biofuels that a microbe makes is an imbalance of the different biological ingredients, or precursors, used to make the final fuel product. In a study published this week in Nature Biotechnology, Jay Keasling, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at UC Berkeley, and colleagues describe a biological sensor system that lets bacteria regulate genes in its biofuel-production pathways according to the amount of certain precursors in the cell.
The recent discovery that bisabolane, a member of the terpene class of chemical compounds used in fragrances and flavorings, holds high promise as a biosynthetic alternative to D2 diesel fuel has generated keen interest in the green energy community and the trucking industry. Now a second team of researchers with the U.S Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) has determined the three-dimensional crystal structure of a protein that is key to boosting the microbial-based production of bisabolane as an advanced biofuel.
The JBEI research team, led by bioengineers Paul Adams and Jay Keasling, solved the protein crystal structure of an enzyme in the Grand fir (Abies grandis) that synthesizes bisabolene, the immediate terpene precursor to bisabolane. The performance of this enzyme – the Abies grandis α-bisabolene synthase (AgBIS) – when engineered into microbes, has resulted in a bottleneck that hampers the conversion by the microbes of simple sugars into bisabolene.
A milestone has been reached on the road to developing advanced biofuels that can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuels with a domestically-produced clean, green, renewable alternative.
Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered the first strains of Escherichia coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into all three of those transportation fuels. What’s more, the microbes are able to do this without any help from enzyme additives.
“This work shows that we can reduce one of the most expensive parts of the biofuel production process, the addition of enzymes to depolymerize cellulose and hemicellulose into fermentable sugars,” says Jay Keasling, CEO of JBEI and leader of this research. “This will enable us to reduce fuel production costs by consolidating two steps – depolymerizing cellulose and hemicellulose into sugars, and fermenting the sugars into fuels – into a single step or one pot operation.”