Your lab is involved in creating a microbial system for producing HIV drugs, prostratin and DPP, which are currently found only in rare plants. How are you approaching this problem? Which organism are you using?
Our first attempt at this is using Escherichia coli and yeast to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin. The HIV drugs are produced by the same basic process: you take the genes out of the plants, you express them in a microbe that produces high levels of the precursors to those drugs and hopefully (with a lot of work) you can get the microbes to produce the drugs. We'll be using both yeast and E. coli [to produce the HIV drugs]. As it turns out, yeast is sometimes easier to use, particularly when you're taking genes from a plant, because yeast's metabolism and gene expression are more related to plants than is E. coli.
Are projects like these, inducing microorganisms to use complex plant pathways to produce a useful product, risky? That is, do you think there's a chance a given plan might never work or is it just a matter of time and hard work?
When we started the artemisinin project, many people said that this would never work - that it was far too risky. It turns out that it does work, but not without a lot of work and a lot of fiddling. Things don't always work the first time. There are also a lot of unknowns in trying to discover these genes. So, yes, there's always a great chance that it won't work.
What kinds of projects do you hope to become involved with in the future?
We're now going to be launching into biofuels projects. We're taking the same technology [we used to produce drugs] to now produce potential next generation biofuels - not ethanol.
If not ethanol, what kind of biofuel products do you mean?
Products you can put in your gas tank right now. As it stands, most cars can only use up to 10% ethanol; you need a flex fuel car in order to use higher percentages of ethanol, which really limits the upper level of how much we can use biofuels. If we produced molecules that were much more like the gasoline you put in your tank now, we could use them directly - 100%.
What do you think is the most understudied microbial system?
I think the action of microbes in communities is something that's still not well understood. Most microbes in the environment (and, frankly, anywhere) work in communities. I think better community work is important.
What is your favorite microorganism and why?
That's easy: E. coli. Why? Because it's so well understood. My lab works on engineering microbes and with any type of engineering you want to start with a system that is well known so that you can manipulate it and change its function. E. coli is really the best organism to be able to do that.
What advice would you give to students about life as an academic microbiologist?
I would really encourage students to get into this area. In particular, I think if you want to work on engineering or manipulating life, the solid, thorough, study of microbes is absolutely essential because that's where we're going to be doing most of the work and where most of the applications are. As biology and microbiology become more quantitative, the study of mathematics is also very helpful.
What is something about you that most people don't know?
I'm from a farm in Nebraska. I didn't think that farm knowledge would ever come in handy, but most of our biofuels are going to come from crops, so it turns out that a lot of the first 18 years of my life might actually be applicable to what I'm going to be doing for the next decade.