Reshma Shetty has always been a builder at heart. At the office of her Boston company, there’s a Lego model that was once shaped like a DNA helix; she and her colleagues are forever playing with the design, moving bricks from one section and adding them to another. The colorful structure is an apt metaphor for her life’s work: constructing biological systems–including customized bacteria that smell like banana, for instance, or can be used as fuel–using a toolbox of standard genetic parts.
Shetty first dug deep into the nascent field of biological construction as a PhD candidate at MIT. There she met her personal Obi-Wan, computer scientist and biologist Tom Knight, who’s popularly considered the father of synthetic biology. Under Knight’s tutelage, Shetty learned that with an array of basic genetic building blocks, biological machines could be constructed to do almost anything you wanted. “That kind of lit my imagination,” she says. “Your body is this amazing mechanical system that can do things no engineer can do. How do we take advantage of that?”
At MIT, Shetty earned her synthetic-biology chops by helping engineer a strain of E. coli bacteria that smelled minty fresh, eliciting praise from experimental biologists who hated the outhouse stench of unadulterated E. coli. But she found herself wondering if the work she’d already done could be accomplished more easily. What if you could assemble a library of genetic components–much like the standardized two- and four-stud- across Lego bricks–that could be used in a wide variety of synthetic-biology projects, simplifying the entire construction process? “If you think about building a house, you draw up plans, there are materials, experts who build your house for you. You know at the end of the process, you’re going to get a house,” Shetty says. “We are nowhere near that in biology. There are no architects. People don’t have any idea how to make a blueprint for a biological system.” She and her MIT colleagues founded Ginkgo BioWorks in hopes of designing, constructing, and vetting synthetic-biology systems much more efficiently–and helping outside researchers to do the same.
Shetty is currently hard at work on a Department of Energy project to build an organism that sucks carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into liquid transportation fuel. However, her ultimate vision for Ginkgo goes beyond simply upending the current fuel economy. “Biology is way more sophisticated than construction in terms of what it can build. Diatoms can build these amazing nanostructures,” she says. “So we’re going to see a transition from regular manufacturing to biological manufacturing. You can chop down a tree into pieces and use it to build things, but why not just grow pieces of your building? Why not have roads that can self-repair?” If Shetty’s vision comes to fruition, the 21st century will be all about the proliferation of new life in unexpected places.
Who are the engineers of the future? This hilarious short film about Ginkgo BioWorks will introduce you to them.
Your body is this amazing mechanical system that can do things no engineers can do. How do we take advantage of that?