circular colonies

Domestication creates value from mere potential.

There are many wild bacteria species that naturally produce chemicals that are normally made from petroleum, or that eat chemicals we do not want amassing. Despite their promising capabilities they have not been deployed in industry. In their wild form, they are not suitable for biomanufacturing — they have resisted efforts to grow them at industrial scale or to genetically engineer them in the laboratory.

You know some of these bacteria from the endless “we found a bacteria that eats plastic!” news stories.

Bioengineering has to be about domestication — a give and a take.

Some have tried to transfer genes from those bacteria into a genetically manipulable species like E. coli. But asking E. coli to make chemicals or eat plastic is like asking a dog to make milk or eat grass. Yes, cows and dogs are both quadruped mammals, but a dog needs to eat meat and is going to be miserable (and look weird) hooked up to a milking machine. Dogs are the wrong species for the dairy industry, just as E. coli is the wrong species for the chemical industry.

What on earth would E. coli get out of eating plastic? You cannot engineer something that you do not understand. And people have forgotten why E. coli is engineerable!

Laboratory strains of E. coli are bioengineering’s biggest triumph to date. A planet of researchers focused for fifty years on establishing a bacteria in which the tools of genetic manipulation are accessible — even to high schoolers! No other bacteria has since been nominated for such a concerted engineering effort.

We don’t think it will take a whole field of experts to do the next hundred species. We think a small, motivated company can establish genetic toolkits in cells that do wonderfully weird chemistries and avoid putting weird chemistries in cells just because their with extant genetic toolkits (lookin’ at you, E. coli!).

We develop a feeling for each organism in our care. We complete an unprecedentedly thorough profile of its needs and wants — and then we use that connection to begin engineering it for industrial applications.

We succeed because we care about what the bacteria cares about. We know how to make them an offer they can’t refuse. We know how to strike a deal, and how to stick to it.