Ever since Alexander Fleming noticed a clump of blue-green mold destroying a neighboring culture of bacteria in a nearly discarded petri dish, scientists have searched the most unlikely of places for cures to human disease. Eventually, Fleming's serendipitous 1928 discovery led to the development of penicillin. Today's scientists have taken a more proactive approach. Oftentimes, their starting material is still as counterintuitive as a moldy plate. But rather than merely searching for cure-all compounds, a new subset of scientists known as synthetic biologists are trying to turn single-celled organisms like bacteria and yeast into tiny chemical factories that can build these compounds from scratch. Their work, which applies engineering principles to biological systems, represents the cutting edge of genetic research. And Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, is leading the pack. Not only has Keasling built the molecular tool kit necessary for this work, but he has made that tool kit freely available to his colleagues. He has also proved the new science's mettle by solving a real-world problem.
Keasling's first target was malaria—a disease that kills more than 1 million people every year, mostly infants and young children from the world's poorest regions. With a 90 percent cure rate, artemisinin is easily the most powerful antimalaria drug on the market. But extracting the clunky molecule from the sweet-wormwood plant that produces it is slow and expensive. In fact, the medication is so scarce that most of the world's 3 million malaria patients are dying for want of it.
Keasling's team inserted wormwood genes into a simple yeast cell, and then reprogrammed some of that cell's own genes to create a microorganism that can spin sugar into artemisinin. Growing this microbe in a broth of glucose can produce volumes of the precious drug in mere hours, reducing the manufacturing costs from dollars to pennies per dose.
To make sure that patients actually saw those savings, Keasling worked with university officials and pharmaceutical giants alike to ensure that no one, including him, could profit from his newly patented system. "It's not that we're against companies making money," he says. "We just don't want them to gouge the poor." In March, Sanofi-Aventis signed on to scale up production of Keasling's customized yeast cells. The company expects to start churning out artemisinin by late 2010; it will sell the drug at cost.
Keasling's success proves three things: scientists can share; pharmaceutical companies can put patients before profits; and synthetic biology can be a force for change. That's accomplishment enough to fill an entire career, but at 44, Keasling is just getting started. The self-described idealist has spent the bulk of his career at Berkeley, pushing relentlessly toward his own vision of the world—one where even microbes can be heroes. "I see no reason why we can't completely reimagine the chemical industry," he says. "We don't have to just accept what nature gives us."
Even as his sphere of influence grows, Keasling remains unassuming. He is quick to attribute his success to the work ethic he cultivated growing up on his family's Nebraska farm. But friends and colleagues say Keasling is much more than a hard worker. "He brings extraordinary intellectual capacity to the table," says fellow researcher Blake Simmons. Already Keasling has won grants from the Gates Foundation, British Petroleum and the U.S. government. Earlier this year the Department of Energy tapped him to head its newly created Joint BioEnergy Institute, one of three research centers established to help wean America off foreign oil. As CEO, Keasling will direct a small army of scientists and $134 million in funding over the next five years, all geared toward a single daunting task: the creation of cost-effective, environmentally friendly biofuels.
The challenge is even greater than that of malaria. In recent years auto executives, farmers and oil giants have all put their money on corn-based ethanol, but most scientists who have studied the issue agree that option won't be sustainable in the long run. "It takes too much fertilizer and irrigation," Keasling says. "And only a portion of the plant actually gets converted into fuel." While other scientists focus on making corn-based ethanol more efficient, Keasling is once again bending the lowliest of earth's creatures to his own will. Instead of turning sugar into artemisinin, his next creation will turn cellulose into biofuel. Cellulose is found in virtually all plant cells, making it the most common organic compound on the planet, and an ideal fuel source. "If it works," he says, "we could potentially turn any plant—grass, weeds, even paper waste—into energy."
Still, some scientists say that not even Jay Keasling can save the world with bacteria and yeast. As one colleague who asked not to be named because he did not want to offend Keasling said, "All the well-intentioned ideas in the world aren't going to fix a thing unless there's some money to be made." Of course, the naysayers have never held sway over Keasling. For all his vision and foresight, one thing he can't see is obstacles.