Local scientist revolutionizes cell research

April 8, 2009 7:33:10 PM PDT
Much of the research underway in finding an alternative to gasoline is being conducted in the Bay Area. Behind one of the largest projects in an East Bay scientist who is trying to make a difference in the world.

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Biologist and chemical engineer Jay Keasling went from life on the farm to be a scientific superstar in the Bay Area.

He's attracting a lot of attention from the Colbert Report on Comedy Central.

He's been named one of Newsweek's 10 hottest nerds, was one of Esquire Magazine's 75 most influential people of the 21st century and was once named Discover magazine's 'Scientist of the Year.'

Keasling is as smart as smart gets. He's developed many of the methods for a new area of science, synthetic biology. It's a field that's allowing scientists to turn single celled organisms like the bacteria in yeast into microscopic factories that churn out compounds from scratch.

"I am not sure how smart I am. I work hard, I am not convinced how smart I am. But I am really interested in both the science but also in solving global problems," said Jay Keasling, Ph.D.

Not only has Keasling developed the toolbox that makes synthetic biology possible, he's made it available to his colleagues to further the field.

Dr. Jack Newman is a former post-doc in Keasling's lab. He co-founded Amyris Biotechnologies with Keasling.

"Jay is somebody who really gets it, he not only gets the science, but I think he's always looking for, well how do you use that science in an engineering sort of discipline, to make a difference in the world," said Dr. Newman.

"It's so great when you get to do really exciting science and apply it to a problem - that if you are lucky and you solve it - you are going to be helping millions of people," said Keasling, Ph.D.

He's already shown it's possible.

Malaria kills more than one million people a year. Most of those who die are infants or young children in the poorest parts of the world. Keasling's research team pieced together a puzzle that could wipe out malaria globally.

Artemisinin is the best anti-malarial drug on the market, capable curing most of those stricken with the disease. But making the drug is difficult, expensive and time consuming.

With a $42.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Keasling broke the code, making the drug for pennies instead of dollars, and in hours instead of days.

"No, I am not making a lot of money, and that's never been a motivation for me. What's been a motivation for me it doing interesting science, and furthering the field that I am in," said Keasling, Ph.D.

Keasling isn't stopping at malaria; he's opening his toolbox to find an alternative to the world's dependence on fossil fuel.

Last year, he was tapped by the Department of Energy to run the Joint Bio-Energy Institute, or J-BEI for short.

The Emeryville-based lab will apply synthetic science to the world of bio-fuels.

"We have roughly 1.3 billion tons of biomass every year that's just lying in fields and landfills that we are not doing anything with, and we have this huge potential," said Keasling, Ph.D.

The $134 million project is charged with one single goal -- make a low cost, environmentally friendly bio-fuel.

His plan is to take the cellulose that is found in virtually all plant cells.

"Taking crop residues, and waste from landfills, and turning it into fuels that we can use in our automobiles," said Keasling, Ph.D.

AT 44, Keasling still attacks science like the child that grew up on a Nebraska farm, only now, what he sees growing in the fields may change the world forever.

"I think it's been an incredible ride, and really fun, and I hope there will be many more years of doing great projects," said Keasling, Ph.D.

Keasling believes affordable bio-fuels are entirely possible in the near future, as a substitute for the gasoline that we use in our cars today.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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