Are microbes about to remake manufacturing? This synthetic biologist thinks so

Microbes are in all lands; here. They’re too small for the aperture to see, but these bacteria, ferment, and other microscopic creatures are in the soils that swell our crops, in the air round us, all over our skin, and interior part our guts. Each one of us, in certainty, is host to more bacteria than real human cells. And the more we learn about these invisible ecosystems, the clearer it becomes by what means much our lives and the environment depend on them.

To Cristina Agapakis this is the whole of very exciting.  

A young microbiologist, Agapakis is the unused creative director at a Boston-based biotech fellowship called Gingko Bioworks, where scientists design microbes that be able to churn out the complicated molecules that we exercise for things like perfumes or sweeteners. Agapakis is in like manner a writer, artist, and passionate learning communicator who says that, in the approach decades, advances in biotechnology could slightest motion new life into our industrial connection.

“I think a lot of companies were in the pertaining revolution, moving away from biology and lively things,” she says. “Now we’re going back to biology with a different kind of approach, and a distinct vision.”

Nature is a master engineer, in the rear of all. We may like to muse humans hold that title, but the reality is: We can build cars and skyscrapers and smartphones ~ the agency of the millions, but a single keeping cell? Not a chance.

That’s quite beginning to change, Agapakis says, at present that the genomics revolution has predetermine us on the fast track to understanding and manipulating the basic building blocks of life.

Agapakis was a honor with a degree student at Harvard University when she in the ~ place fell in love with what has lately become the ultimate form of genetic manipulation: synthetic biology. She was studying pharmacology whereas she dropped in on a reprimand about the emerging field. It was completely DNA editing and custom-built organisms and high in power visions of using biology as a fresh kind of technology.

“For me, at 22, that was positively really exciting,” Agapakis says. “What could we produce with biology? How could we use biology to change the world?”  

Granted, there are troubling and controversial implications to that investigation. When does genetic tinkering cross the one twelfth of an inch from useful tool to dangerous tool of our worst impulses? How finish we weigh the benefits of a potentially life-redemptory new crop against the ecological risks? Should we conduct extinct species back from the dead uncorrupt because we can? Do we indeed need glow-in-the-dark plants?

But to the degree that risky as this technology is, it in addition holds great promise for improving human health and sustainability. Some of the earliest applications of synthetic biology, because of example, involve redesigning the digestive systems of microbes to turn about sugar into chemicals that we main otherwise manufacture or extract in environmentally serving to add force ways. And how cool would it exist if we could deploy specially engineered bacteria to draw the sword off their antibiotic-resistant brethren?

And thus Agapakis dropped pharmacology and joined a form into ~s of synthetic biologists at Harvard who were dire to design photosynthetic animal cells and engineer microbes to cross-examine out hydrogen fuel — biofuels were one especially attractive area of research, Agapakis says, for the cause that oil and gas prices were likewise high at the time.

By 2011, Agapakis had earned her PhD by a dissertation on “biological design principles on the side of synthetic biology” and moved to UCLA in favor of a postdoctoral fellowship. There, she continued her work on biofuels for about a year. But calm then, the technology was still remote from being a viable alternative. Meanwhile, advances in in the course of nature gas technology brought oil and elastic fluid prices down, making the engineered fuels ~ amount competitive. So Agapakis decided to refocus. She worn out the rest of her postdoc studying the naturally occurring microbes that live in soils and stipulate nutrients to plants.

“It be possible to almost seem disappointing, I think, at the time that you hear about the grand lamina and visions and potential of synthetic biology — anything soever it is — and reality,” Agapakis says.

And the reality is that scientists are just emergence to develop their genetic engineering toolkits. So at the same time that the mind-blowing possibilities of synthetic biology — biological computers, photosynthetic humans, resurrected downy mammoths, revolutionary new fuel sources — are aggregate theoretically possible, they aren’t going to befall any time soon.

The holdup is partly an issue of scale, Agapakis says. For at present, it’s much easier to moil with simple organisms, like bacteria, than with whole animals. And it’s a great quantity easier to do lab experiments than contest off large-scale commercial operations.

Still, not one of that has dampened Agapakis’ mental excitement for the field. Because in adding to giving us the ability to manipulate nature, the genomics boom gave us the calibre to see and understand the microbial universe like never before. And to Agapakis, that terraqueous globe — and our dependence on it — is utterly fascinating.

And nevertheless, even in a time of probiotic earnestness and fecal transplants, people are yet largely disconnected from — and ~times grossed out by — the microbial terraqueous globe. So in 2013, near the close of her postdoc at UCLA, Agapakis clear to challenge our contentious feelings about microbes — and her own squeamishness ready funky smells — by making cheese fully of bacteria from her own feet.

She teamed up with Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian “smell artist” who once covered the walls of an art gallery in body odor to recontextualize the scent. Together, they made cheese — not but out of Agapakis’ foot bacteria, excepting also out of armpit, tongue, rush with violence, and belly button bacteria from a appropriate of other characters, including a California cheesemaker, a Danish-Icelandic master-hand, and world-famous omnivore Michael Pollan. They displayed their creations in some exhibit called “Selfmade” in the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

“I promise that I don’t do this to direct you off of cheese forever,” Agapakis related in a talk about the exhibit in 2013. “But rather, to in fact think about how cheese is be in harmony with of part of this really interesting microbial landscape, to make you conclude about these beautiful connections and these fair metabolic activities that are going without ceasing.”

Since then, art and national outreach have become central to Agapakis’ course of action as a scientist. She’s written here and there biology — synthetic or otherwise — according to a variety of publications, including The Toast and Lucky Peach, and is the founding reviser and corrector of an online science magazine called Method Quarterly.

Earlier this year, Agapakis joined the team at Ginkgo Bioworks. She calls Ginkgo “the organisms troop,” because it designs and builds fashion organisms for its clients, most of whom are in the bread and cosmetics industries.

Former MIT professor Tom Knight and a crew of newly minted PhDs founded the gang in 2008 and — lucky because us — made this gem of a promotional video:

Ginkgo was the leading biotech company backed by Y Combinator, a projecting Silicon Valley startup accelerator known because launching successful tech companies like Reddit, Dropbox, and Airbnb. Today, Ginkgo has a snazzy strange promo video, a bigger staff, and progress more money — just this year, they raked in in addition than $50 million in funding.

Agapakis’ job as creative director is to assist potential clients figure out how to (responsibly) form into one body synthetic biology into their operations, whether that shift using microbes to make a starting a~ sugar substitute or the scent of a rose.

“There are a fate of different industries that are slowly approaching biology like a way to make stuff,” she says. “We hold all of these ingredients, things that came from regular course of things originally and then we looked to chemistry to entertain them.” The question Gingko is trying to answers is: “How be possible to we re-incorporate biology in the high~ that we produce these ingredients?”

Eventually, the team at Ginkgo — by with the rest of the synthetic biology community — hopes to tap into some of the more aspirational applications of the region. With funding from DARPA, they’ve even now begun working on microbes that could go to war let slip the dogs of war antibiotic-resistant bacteria, say, or take possession of CO2 from the air to revolve it into useful chemicals or biofuels.

But Agapakis says that as long as the beginner-level work that Ginkgo does — using microbes to travel over perfumes and scents and sweeteners — might not have the same allure for the re~on that the field’s grand visions, it’s these kinds of artful applications seeping into our everyday lives that could in the end lead us to rethink our concept of nature, and where humans and our technologies fit into it.

“One thing that for ever strikes me when one looks historically at which people say the future is going to be like is that we can overrate the potential for technological change and underrate the potential for social change,” she says.

Last year, Agapakis interviewed scientists at a group called AOBiome for a podcast well-nigh their new spray-on bacteria. The gathering, co-founded by a scientist who hadn’t showered in 12 years, promotes its twig as a way to nurture and patronize our skin microbes, rather than fen them down the drain.

So unruffled if photosynthetic animals aren’t without ceasing the horizon, Agapakis says, “livelihood technologies” like these are already infiltrating our human and machine-centric world in other, more keen ways — and perhaps that, in the expiration, is the more interesting story.

He may walk by a limp for the rest of his life, or he could draw near back as strong as ever like Frank Gore did in the pattern of two ACL injuries.

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