Vital lifelines cooked up in the lab

Synthetic biology can provide fuel and help to fight deadly disease.

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In Brazil about 100 buses are running on diesel fuel made from microbes.

Later this year the French drug company Sanofi will launch an anti-malaria drug also made from microbes.

What is common between these two events is the technology that has been used to make them happen - and the scientist behind these efforts.

Both the diesel fuel and the anti-malaria drug have been made from microbes using a technology called synthetic biology.

This involves inserting a dozen or more genes into microbes to make them produce drugs, chemicals or biofuels that they normally would not make.

Jay Keasling, a professor in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California in Berkeley, is using synthetic biology to engineer these microbes. Amyris Biotechnologies, a company he co-founded in California with a few other scientists, is taking this technology to market.

The biggest example of that will be visible later this year when Sanofi increases its production of an anti-malarial drug based on an ingredient called artemisinin.

Nearly 300 million people fall sick from malaria each year and more than half a million - mainly children under the age of five - die from the disease, mostly in the developing world because of lack of access to affordable, effective drugs.

The chloroquine-based drugs that have been traditionally used to fight malaria are no longer particularly effective.

However, this debilitating disease can be treated with new medicines that have artemisinin as a core ingredient. Yet as artemisinin is found in one particular plant, sweet wormwood, cultivating and extracting it for large-scale use is a time-consuming and expensive process, especially in the poorer countries that need this medicine the most.

Prof Keasling used synthetic biology to engineer a microbe to produce artemisinin in the laboratory - enabling it to be produced more quickly and at a much lower cost. Amyris has licensed the technology to Sanofi, which is planning to make the artemisinin-based anti-malarial drug available in the market later this year, Prof Keasling says.

"Sanofi has already produced enough artemisinin for about 70 million people and will be able to produce for up to 120 million people every year," he adds.

Prof Keasling believes synthetic biology and the process of artificially developing microbes have a wide range of applications.

"Once you produce these platform microbes, those molecules can be substitutes for all the molecules we get from hydrocarbons," he says.

Apart from the anti-malarial drug, Amyris is also currently using this process to make transport fuel and chemicals for cosmetics and fragrances.

"In between fuels and drugs are all the chemicals we use on a regular basis and we can expect to use microbes for all of those," Prof Keasling says.

For his efforts in the field of biomolecular engineering, he has been selected by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation as this year's recipient of its George Washington Carver Award for innovation in industrial biotechnology.

The industry body represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies and academic institutions in the United States and 30 other countries.

Prof Keasling, a native of Nebraska who was born and raised on a corn farm, says he realised the significance of platform microbes only when he and his team were finishing their work on artemisinin around 2007.

The anti-malarial drug, he noticed, was a hydrocarbon and had some similarities to diesel fuel and jet fuel.

"We modified the chemistry in the microbes and realised it wouldn't take too much work to produce the kind of fuel we want," he says.

"The importance of that is that you don't need to change the transportation infrastructure."

That means the fuel produced can be directly used in cars, lorries and aircraft, without modifying the engines of the vehicles, unlike when using ethanol.

One way to boost production of this easy-to-use fuel is to convert the biomass of non-food crops and agricultural waste into fuels for cars and jet planes.

Prof Keasling says the United States has hundreds of thousands acres of marginal land that is not adequate for producing food but can be used to grow bioenergy crops such switchgrass and acanthus grass, which can then be converted into renewable fuels.

About an acre of these plants could produce hundreds of gallons of advance transportation fuels.

But even though these plants have a high sugar content it is still very difficult to extract it.

In his laboratory Prof Keasling is engineering these plants to more readily give up their sugars.

He is also developing microbes that can extract the sugars from without significant pre-treatment and turn them into transport fuels similar to petrol, diesel and jet fuels.

Amyris is testing this technology in Brazil, where it is converting sugarcane into diesel. The buses running in São Paolo on this fuel are part of the experiment and Prof Keasling claims Amyris' diesel molecule gives better mileage and reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by 80 per cent over conventional fuel.

But at nearly $8 a gallon, about twice the price of diesel in the US, it is too expensive to produce commercially as yet.

"The challenge with fuel is it has to be extremely inexpensive," says Prof Keasling.

What would help in mass adoption - and a significant drop in price - of the fuel, he says, is if governments charged companies for carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere.

"We put no cost on that so it makes it very difficult to compete with conventional fuel," he says.

"We need a carbon tax or carbon trading that would make renewable fuel more competitive."