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Synthetic Biology

Sarah Richardson on prestige publishing: ‘Luckily, I don’t give a crap about that’

Her company, MicroByre, is proving that wild microbes can be engineered to produce useful chemicals

by Cici Zhang, special to C&EN
March 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 9

 

09809-feature13-richardson.jpg
Credit: Laura Morton
Sarah Richardson stands outside the door of her lab.
09809-feature13-richardson.jpg
Credit: Laura Morton
Sarah Richardson stands outside the door of her lab.

When Sarah Richardson bought the domain name for her Berkeley, California–based company in 2016, no one was competing with her for it. That’s perhaps not surprising given that the byre in microbyre.com means “cowshed” in Old English. Richardson envisioned her firm, MicroByre, would be a bacterial barn where bioengineers tame a menagerie of wild microbes to produce useful chemicals.

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Vitals

Title: CEO, MicroByre

Funding: $3 million

Investors: Bioeconomy Capital, the House Fund, and Prime Impact Fund

Synthetic biologists have been transplanting foreign genes into yeast and Escherichia coli for decades to program the microbes to do their bidding. These organisms, which are widely used in the lab for all manner of chores, aren’t up for every challenge, though. For instance, E. coli has difficulty converting biomass to petrochemicals, a task that Richardson hopes microbes might one day take on.

“Swapping the occasional part cannot turn a Volkswagen Bug into a Formula One race car,” says Rik Wehbring, a managing director of Bioeconomy Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm that recently led a $3 million seed round of investment for MicroByre.

You can’t make E. coli betray their nature and eat anything other than sugar, Richardson explains. Biomass such as lignin would be a cheaper, more sustainable feedstock. But if you want a microbe to change what it’s producing and change what it’s eating, it would require too many genetic edits. The process would fail.

That’s where Richardson’s wild-microbe barn comes in. With a team of chemists, microbiologists, and software engineers, MicroByre aims to find the right bacterium for each job and coax it, with minimal editing, to work in industrial environments.

“We can identify a bacterium, know what it takes to make it happy, know what minor little tweaks will not make it unhappy but will make it profitable,” Richardson says. To do this, the team uses robots to run parallel tests on microbes, assessing the conditions under which they thrive. The chemicals produced by MicroByre’s engineered bacteria, the firm says, could serve in applications such as medicine and mining.

It’s not that people have never thought about using microbes other than E. coli and yeast, Richardson says, but most infrastructure is already built around these common model organisms, so it’s difficult to change direction.

Some say wild microbes are too hard to manipulate, but Richardson thinks the idea that most bacteria aren’t culturable is a myth. Nobody was really motivated to tame new microbes, she explains, because it was much easier to borrow genes from wild bacteria and insert them into the tame microbes on hand. Another reason to shy away from wrangling wild microbes is that proving that novel organisms can be adapted to laboratory or industrial environments is not necessarily glamorous work. “You build infrastructure in all these other bacteria, it’s not going to get you a Nature or Science paper,” she says.

“Luckily,” she continues, “I don’t give a crap about that.”

Richardson founded MicroByre in 2017 after ­earning a PhD at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and holding two postdoctoral positions at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

MicroByre is currently working on several bacteria that other scientists have struggled to edit. “We might be the first or among very few people who’ve ever been able to synthetically edit those bacteria,” Richardson says. Once her team tames the microbes, she adds, the next step is to make the right kinds of edits. If all goes as planned, Richardson envisions larger industrial partners scaling up MicroByre’s processes for commercialization. In that scenario, revenue would come in the form of licensing fees or shared intellectual property.

Richardson’s short-term goal is to coax MicroByre’s bacteria to produce fine chemicals that are otherwise “incredibly” expensive to manufacture via standard synthetic methods, she says. As for her long-term goal? Richardson won’t rest until scientists stop defaulting to yeast and E. coli. “I have got to change that paradigm,” she says. “And until it changes, I can’t stop.”

Cici Zhang is a freelance science writer based in China.

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