Tim Gardner: “There Is Almost No Physical Problem That Can’t Be Solved With Biology”​

I’m co-author of a book called What’s Your Biostrategy? With SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers, we’re writing about the impact of biotechnology on ALL business. Over the next few months, I’m going to publish interview summaries from the book. For more information, scroll to the bottom of the post.

In 2000, Tim Gardner wrote one of synthetic biology’s seminal papers: Construction of a Genetic Toggle Switch in Escherchia Coli. At Amyris he led the engineering of yeast strains and pioneered process technologies for the large-scale bio-manufacturing of renewable chemicals. He founded Riffyn to create tools to accelerate innovation in research and development. My co-author John Cumbers and I interviewed Tim for What’s Your Bio Strategy? Here’s a few excerpts from the interview:

“To increase the size of the bio-based economy, we need to reduce the cost of developing bio-based products that would have been made from petroleum and chemistry. If we can do that, then developing more specialized products will be acceptable. We’ll stop searching for billion dollar blockbusters. We’ll have more entrepreneurial successes and investors will be happy because we’re delivering on the promises of the bio-based economy.”

[“At Riffyn, our] thesis is that the solution to faster, better, cheaper drugs, and faster, better, cheaper bio-based products is the predictability of information. It’s about integrating information to make better, informed decisions. It’s not necessarily about fancy robots or magical tools.”

“Engineering has more science in it than people realize.”

“The idea that scientists are being paid more or are delivering more value or are in greater demand is not entirely true. It’s hard to hire engineers.”

“Value tends to accrue to people and organizations that can reduce uncertainty.”

“There are organisms that can detect light or transform electricity into energy for survival. Muscles are incredibly efficient compared to the hydraulics or batteries that you might put into a robot. If we want to use those properties to make the world a more efficient, higher performing, more enjoyable place, then we need to learn how to learn from nature.”

Want to read the full interview? Visit What’s Your Bio Strategy?


iGEM is the Future of Biotechnology

Jennifer Lopez and Zachary Quinto.

Biotech is going mainstream in a big way.

That was the message to the more than 5,600 high school and college students crowded into Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the 2016 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Lopez’s production company is producing CRISPR, a near-future crime drama named after the gene-editing tool that Science Magazine dubbed 2015’s Breakthrough of the Year.

Quinto, star of Heroes and the Star Trek-reboot, is producing and starring in BioPunk, a drama based on the book of the same name. It explores the world of DIY-scientists and garage biohackers.

Standing in front of the crowd, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Ed You pointed out that, unfortunately, Lopez’ and Quinto’s shows will likely continue Hollywood’s long-standing war against science – a disservice to young people worldwide who might consider careers as scientists [1].

That disservice, he said, also presents a great responsibility to the students in the audience. Those students and the iGEM alumni that number in the thousands spread widely around the globe still are, according to Stanford synthetic biologist, Drew Endy, “one in a million. And that isn’t enough.”

Unexpected applications of biotechnology today

A biological material that can absorb uranium.

Plants that generate electricity.

Proteins engineered to respond to sound.

These were a few of the synthetic biology applications created by the nearly 300 teams that traveled to iGEM from as far as South Africa, Pakistan, China and Australia, as well as from universities across the European Union and the United States.

In 2009, I had been told that if I wanted to see the future of biotechnology, I needed to attend iGEM. It’s where kids develop biological solutions that use functioning bits of genetic information (BioBricks) to solve real-world problems. Sometimes those solutions are audacious and function. Often, they do not.

Students learn how to think and work like scientists, and must engage their communities.

Over the summer, my son, Alejandro joined the GenSpace iGEM team. The Brooklyn team would be competing in the overgraduate category as team members ranged in age from high school juniors to grad students.

Since I write about the rapid advance of life science technologies, I was interested in how the young scientists participating in iGEM would tell their stories. I also wondered what storytellers could learn from the competition.

Here are a few of the things that I learned.

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

The term “synthetic biology” is more than a hundred years old, but published pieces discussing the creation of biological circuits date only to 2000. Modern biotechnology is not even fifty years old.  

iGEM is now twelve years old. From the beginning, it has given students the opportunity to leverage all of biotechnology’s history, as well as synthetic biology’s recent history of applying engineering and design principles to biology.

What iGEM doesn’t give is design constraints.[3]

It gives them BioBricks – interchangeable standard biological parts, pieces of DNA, the computer code of life, that have been developed to build biological systems in living cells.

Most of the students working with the BioBricks probably don’t understand the molecular details of those parts – they don’t need to. They understand that the Bricks are like Legos and can be combined, arranged, recombined and rearranged in seemingly infinite ways. That simplifies the process of design and construction.

Many of those standard biological parts were created or characterized by previous iGEM teams. So, each competition can build upon the previous years’ and contribute the new parts they create to the registry that in turn will be used by future teams.

For example, Team Peking, the 2016 team behind the new biomaterial designed to absorb uranium, constructed a library of parts that they submitted to the BioBricks Foundation. They also offered experimental materials to other Chinese teams.

This is the way that science is practiced in the real world:

Science as a collaborative sport.

Over and over again, iGEM teams referenced the parts they used, as well as the other teams they asked for advice and advised.

Collaboration is considered an essential skill in the 21st century as it promotes the type of deep learning needed to identify and promote complex problems. Nearly every team I saw on stage was gender diverse and depended on older mentors.

For example, the  team from Brooklyn’s community lab Genspace consisted of high school, college, and graduate students. They were mentored by a biotech entrepreneur, a microbiologist, and biologist. There were 11 people onstage, plus their mentor in a tardigrade costume.

As part of the competition, all teams were questioned by a panel of judges comprising experienced academics and professionals. The questions asked were often difficult for the teams to answer. If the team pushed up against the limits of biosafety, the judges asked how risks were minimized.

Many teams also faced the additional challenge of having English as a second language. I watched teams struggle, passing the microphone, as they discussed the answer among themselves, until one team member felt confident enough to address the judges.

Sharing information dispels myths

One of the many teams from Mexico pointed out that 65% of Mexicans believe in magic.

(If you think that’s odd, remember that mistrust of science runs deep in the U.S. and has resulted in a surge of anti-vaccine sentiment and a government that wants to shut down most basic research-funding institutions. In the European Union, fears of genetic engineering have resulted in stringent controls on the use and growth of genetically modified crops, which have in turn prevented their adoption in many African countries where such crops could help feed a hungry population.)

To participate in the competition, iGEM teams are required to engage their local community in Human Practices: the study of how your work affects the world and the world affects your work.

Team Peshawar, the first ever iGEM team from Pakistan, traveled across their country visiting schools and college, running a roadshow to engage and educate as many people as they could about synthetic biology. They developed BioBrick trading cards for younger children and were featured on national television, in national newspapers, and on one international biotech web site.

The team, like many others, wrote a policy paper for the Pakistani government that contained recommendations for the development of synthetic biology in Pakistan, as well as its impact on science and education and the economy.

As a storyteller, I found this one of the most important parts of being in iGEM – you’re telling non-scientists about an important field that is rapidly growing and is quickly impacting all of our lives.

In his book Regenesis, Harvard genetics professor George Church wrote of iGEM,

“Some of the world’s most imaginative, significant, and potentially even the most powerful biological structures and devices [are] now coming not from biotech firms or from giant pharmaceutical companies, but from the ranks of university, college, and even secondary school students who were doing it mainly in the spirit of advanced educational recreation.”

When Professor Church visited iGEM this year, he was mobbed by students, following around like a rockstar. iGEMers have heroes, and those heroes are real scientists.

Let’s hope Lopez and Quinto follow iGEM’s lead by showing scientists are not crazy loners inspired to destroy world, but real people solving real problems by sharing information, collaborating, and dispelling myths.


This post is a chapter from a book I’m co-authoring. If you’re interested visit, What’s Your Bio Strategy? and sign up for the newsletter.

[1] . Especially considering STEM jobs are growing three-times faster and pay 26 percent more than non-STEM jobs [U.S. Department of Commerce].

[2] My high school senior was on the GenSpace. They took the Overgraduate Award for measurement.

[3] The BioDesign Challenge, started this past year, offers art and design students the opportunity to envision future applications of biology. While the entries in the first year’s competition were more abstract than those at iGEM, students again, are not constrained by convention and could let their imaginations run wild.

[Thanks to Erum Azeez-Khan, Nat Connors, John Cumbers, Kristin Ellis, John Garrison, and Susan Rensberger for reading early drafts of this.]



Career Advice to a Molecular Biologist Starting to Write

If you want to write, you need to write.

Write and write some more.

Read the science media.

Fill your head with the best writing you can find. Read The New Yorker. Read annual anthologies of the best writing — not just science writing either. Here’s The Best American Essays of 2016.

Practice generating ideas on what to write every day. Especially after you read a science story and some really great writing that isn’t science. Look for ways to combine ideas.

Start a blog to demonstrate your writing skills.

Then guest post on blogs that are in your topic area. Start developing the relationship with those bloggers as soon as you start writing your own content.

Find the publications that you want to write or work for.

Follow the writers and editors on Twitter, Facebook, and Quora.

Develop relationships with them. Be transparent. Tell them you want to write for them. Ask them questions.

After you’ve developed those relationships, start pitching ideas. Pitch them lots of ideas.

Don’t have any expectations.

Remember, like writing, getting a job in writing is a process. The more you work on pitching, the luckier you’ll get. The more you write, the luckier you’ll get.

Remember that if you’re going to make a living as a writer, there are a lot more opportunities writing for companies. You can carve out a very nice niche writing for life sciences companies.

I don’t work in the media but work with and speak to people at publications regularly and I know there aren’t enough science-trained writers.

I wish someone would’ve given me this advice when I was starting out. It took me 10 years to figure it out.

Here’s my original answer.


I Wanted To Be Right But Synthetic Yeast News Proved Me Wrong

I was wrong.

On Quora, someone asked:

How far are we from engineering a completely synthetic, self-replicating cell or organism?

My original answer was three years. 2020.

My answer was based on research I’ve been conducting for What’s Your Bio Strategy?

Then last week, Science ran an issue on the creation of synthetic chromosomes.

The yeast genome is being reimagined as a synthetic chromosome

Scientists have synthesized five of the 16 chromosomes that comprise baker’s yeast. – Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

We have a long relationship with that species of yeast. We use it to make wine, brew beer, and make bread. It’s the microorganism we most use for fermentation. It’s also one of the most studied model organisms in molecular and cell biology. It is relatively easy to modify genetically and be grown at scale. That’s important for industrial applications.

Since s. cerevisiae is well-characterized, it made sense that scientists would choose to create a synthetic version.

It’s not the first, synthetic organism. [1]

That distinction goes to the researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute. In 2010, they created a replica of Mycoplasma mycoides, a parasite that causes pneumonia in goats. They called that new entity syn1.0.

In 2016, Venter’s group streamlined (or “defragged”) the M. mycoides genome to create what they termed “the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell.” The original synthesis in 2010 caused a bit of an uproar. Last year’s news, not so much.

Here's how undergrads are reconstructing yeast, creating a synthetic genome

Let’s get back to yeast.

Back in 2014, New York University yeast geneticist, Jef Boeke announced that he and a group of undergraduate researchers had synthesized the first baker’s yeast chromosome. (Remember, yeast has 16 chromosomes.)

It was a significant development because it only took a few years. And undergrads did most of the work. (In contrast, Craig Venter and his team took 15 years and US$40 million to synthesize syn1.0.)

Boeke and a team of researchers started the SC2.0 project to “synthesize a modified version of the genome chromosome by chromosome, from the bottom up.”

In last week’s announcement, the researchers announced they had “untangled, streamlined and reorganized the genome of the most studied of all eurkaryotic genomes.”

Ultimately, the synthetic organism they create will be yeast reimagined. At the same time they’ll add features “to facilitate chromosome construction and manipulation.”

When will synthetic yeast be finished?

By the end of 2017.

Researchers will complete the construction of an entire synthetic yeast genome by the end of 2017. – Click to Tweet.

My prediction was wrong by three years. Oh well.

[1] In an email, Andrew Hessel one of the scientists behind the Genome Write Project, wrote, “People tend to split hairs about synthetic organisms… They argue the organism itself (yeast) isn’t synthetic.” I wrote back, “if you take an organism (yeast), delete a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything (or defrag, per Craig Venter), and it still works, then it’s a synthetic organism. Because it doesn’t exist in nature.” Andrew wrote back, “I think any genome that is produced de novo via synthesis and boots up a replicating organism makes that organism by definition a synthetic organism.” Your mileage may vary.


How to Create 10,000 Jobs?

Train 500 brewers.

Originally, I was going to write:

Train 10,000 teachers.

The US of A need teachers.

Despite the overwhelming need for teachers [1], the profession currently is looked down upon in the United States and people don’t understand that if you don’t invest in education, you’re not investing in the future. (Cynically, I understand the reason the United States doesn’t emphasize education more is that an educated populace is harder to control *cough* I mean, govern.)

I was also going to write:

Train 10,000 farmers.

Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in the Field shows something we desperately need – farmers.

It might not sound like a sexy profession, but it is a growth industry and will be for some time. By 2050, we’ll need to feed a planet of 9 billion people. And we’ll need to do it in the face of severe climate change and water shortages.

The average age of the American farmer is 58 years old. This is of concern because no matter how much automation, robotics, and big data impact farming, you still need people to run those farms. Food security is an issue

So, I looked at the question a bit differently:

What would be the minimum number of people we could train to have a massive impact on jobs now and in the future?

[Digression: When we talk about creating jobs, we’re talking about creating employees. Others have pointed out, no employers wants to hire employees. Plus, most people hate their jobs. This is a big part of the issue with current job growth models. So, instead of talking about creating jobs, let’s talk about creating entrepreneurs and business owners. Luckily, this is something that Americans excel at.]

So in thinking about the answer, I thought about sectors that are currently experiencing high-growth and create value with fewer people.

Right now, biotechnology makes up nearly 3 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. It contributes more to the US GDP than mining and utilities – and almost as much as construction.

Over the past decade, biotech grew on average more than 10 percent per year, much faster than the rest of the economy. Biotech also requires fewer people to create significant value.

If you can imagine a small team developing a valuable medicine, an industrial enzyme, or a modification to a plant – all of those are potentially worth billions of dollars.

For most people, biotech is scary [2] but brewing beer is not.

Brewing is biotechnology…

distilled to its simplest form (and yeah, I did intend that pun). Fermentation is the oldest form of biotechnology and we’ve been doing it for 9,000 years

A brewer takes ingredients that have little value separately – water, grain, and hops – and creates something of value. (That sounds a lot like pulling money out of thin air, which is what good entrepreneurs do.)

Over the past few years, microbreweries have exploded. In Brooklyn where I live, I’m surrounded by three – Brooklyn Brewery, Other Half and Sixpoint. New York City counts more than 30 breweries.

Image source:

I can’t find the stat, but I’ve read that all Americans now live within ten miles of a microbrewery.

What are the trickle down effects?

A microbrewery employs at least a few people. They have to buy the grain and hops which someone has to grow and process that requires more people, some farmers.

Hops growing on Long Island

For example, New York state used to be the epicenter of U.S. hop production. The industry, destroyed by mildew-related disease and Prohibition, moved West. But now, the New York hops industry is re-emerging. (It’ll take a while to make a dent in the industry, NY grow only 300 acres, while Oregon and Washington State are growing some 400,000 acres of commercial hops). The microbrew boom is driving the farming of hops.

But doesn’t that mean the market is saturated?

I don’t know much about the specific outlook for breweries but since it involved biotechnology, making the jump from brewing to fermentation would be a small leap. The next leap would be to distributed biological manufacturing.

Back in 2001, Rob Carlson described distributed biological manufacturing as means of producing many of the things we used today. That means people who are trained as brewers can easily learn to brew items that are potentially of much greater value than beer.

Adidas is the first shoe company to use completely sustainable, vegan, super-strong spider silk.

For example, Bolt Threads is one of three synthetic biology companies that has genetically engineered yeast to produce spider silk – one of the strongest materials created by nature. That silk can be used to produce jackets, shoes, and bulletproof vests. And those are only a few of its uses.

In 2015, Stanford researcher Christina Smolke made the news for engineering yeast to produce opioids. Today, it takes one year to produce hydrocodone from poppies that are legally grown in Tasmania. At the time there was some debate as to whether such technology would be abused, say by drug cartels. The bigger debate should probably have been how do you give access to people who have no access to painkillers. Smolke and her team started a company, Antheia, whose mission is to make and fairly provide medicines to all who need them.

It’s not a stretch to imagine brewers being able to produce very high value products very easily.

So, if you want to have a massive impact on the economy, train 500 brewers.

[1] I am happily married to a public school art teacher and come from a family of educators.

Update: Right after I posted this, Forbes ran an article which projected cannabis industry jobs would surpass traditional manufacturing jobs by 2020. Update 2: A month later, Fortune ran a story claiming the future of food would look a lot like brewing beer.

[Thanks to Johnny Bohimer and John Cumbers for their contributions and advice on this.]