Biomanufacturing to Solve Global Challenges

Friday, March 11, 2016 - 2:00pm
Fung Auditorium | Powell-Focht Bioengineering Hall
Jay Keasling

Hubbard Howe, Jr. Distinguished Professor of
Biochemical Engineering
UC Berkeley
Chief Executive Officer, Joint BioEnergy Institute

Biomanufacturing to Solve Global Challenges


By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion. Agricultural productivity will need to increase by 60 percent to feed that population. Meanwhile, climate change is expected to decrease crop yields by up to 40 percent by 2050 and by as much as 80 percent by the turn of the century. The growing population, and its growing use of energy resources, is anticipated to increase worldwide demand for energy by 56 percent in the next 30 years. This will result in more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, fueling the climate change that threatens agriculture and also leads to new diseases. At the same time, disease treatment grows increasingly difficult due to the rise of pathogens resistant to existing pharmaceuticals and the challenge of discovering new therapeutics.


Biology can be harnessed to address our great challenges in a comprehensive and sustainable manner. It can improve agricultural yields, increase nutrients in the soil, and reduce the need for fertilizers. It can convert non-food biomass into fuel, electricity, and chemicals and, in the process, displace fossil fuels. It can engineer microbes and plants into low-cost producers of existing drugs, create new drugs, and alter the microbiome to improve human, animal, and plant health. But biological engineering, as it is executed today, is slow and expensive. It can take years to engineer simple microbes to produce useful molecules and even longer to engineer plants to be more productive crops. The basic biological components (microbial cells, plants, etc.) needed to engineer a biological solution are developed individually in distributed academic and industry labs with little to no integration considered.  As a result, engineered biological systems rarely function as designed, and many iterations of redesign and rebuilding are needed to perfect the system. Due to the competitive landscape, when one company solves a bottleneck in biological engineering, they are reticent to share information. That means those who follow often must expend time and money solving problems that have already been solved by others.

In many industries foundries are used to produce the basic components of the final product. These foundries standardize the software used to design the components and the product made of those components, and they standardize the components themselves, both of which greatly reduce design time and increase success and reliability of the final product. Centralized, industrial foundries for microelectronics now dominate that industry.

In a similar vein, we believe that biological foundries will revolutionize the biotechnology industry. Biological foundries will develop and supply foundational tools for efficient engineering of biological systems, including computer-aided design software for biology, hardware to speed biological construction and testing, and biological components that can be recombined and reused to solve societal and economic challenges. These new powerful tools will allow researchers to move swiftly through multiple iterations of biological design cycles and analyze large amounts of complex data quickly so that many more microorganisms and plants can be created and studied than has been possible using conventional genetic engineering.

In my talk, I will describe how we have engineered biology (microorganisms) to solve some important global challenges in production of the antimalarial drug artemisinin and carbon-neutral, renewable fuels and chemicals.  I will also describe what we’ve done to develop a biological foundry to reduce the cost and time to engineer biology so that future biological engineering projects can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time.


Jay Keasling received his B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Nebraska in 1986; his Ph. D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1991; and did post-doctoral work in Biochemistry at Stanford University from 1991-1992. Keasling joined UC Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1992, where he is currently the Hubbard Howe Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering. Keasling is also a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Berkeley, and Chief Executive Officer of the Joint BioEnergy Institute. Dr. Keasling’s research focuses on engineering microorganisms for environmentally friendly synthesis of small molecules or degradation of environmental contaminants. Keasling’s laboratory has engineered bacteria and yeast to produce polymers, a precursor to the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, and advanced biofuels and soil microorganisms to accumulate uranium and to degrade nerve agents.