Thinking outside of the bioreactor: How biosynthesis of rare building blocks creates new capabilities & safeguards


Microbes play critical roles in the natural world, whether in our guts or in the environment. Thanks to advances in synthetic biology, we are beginning to reliably engineer a vast arsenal of microbes to augment their natural capabilities or to impart them with entirely novel functions. Our potential use of these enhanced microbes in open systems rather than bioreactors could help address diverse challenges in human and environmental health, but we face a few barriers before this can be done effectively and safely. First, we cannot yet engineer our microbial factories to produce many of the kinds of functional group chemistries that belong to effective synthetic medicines, agrochemicals, or materials. Second, we cannot yet reliably introduce a genetically modified microbe into the environment and limit its proliferation, to prevent it from potentially becoming an invasive species that brings unintended consequences. Our lab has been making exciting progress tackling both of these topics, all with a common big picture strategy: Programming cells to create and harness rare building blocks. In this talk, I will focus on a few important building blocks and functional group chemistries. I will describe what their new capabilities and safeguards their biosynthesis enables as well as our efforts to engineer cells to be more compatible with important functional group chemistries.