An Interview with Synthetic Biologist Dr. Felix Moser
Artificial Life at MIT, Novel Foods, Plastic Sinks, and the Way Forward
Dr. Felix Moser is a synthetic biologist and senior scientist at Synlife. I sat down with him to talk about his experience in synthetic biology, some exciting potentials in biotechnology, the frightening reality of what happens to bacteria when it runs out of resources, and how alternative proteins will change the way we eat.
Some background on SynLife
“I started at Synlife as a senior scientist coming out of research at MIT, where I also did my PhD in synthetic biology. I was the first employee at Synlife. It’s a tiny startup that got spun out of the Boyden Lab at the MIT Media Lab.” The Boyden Lab focuses on understanding living systems, brain function, and developing new therapeutics for neurology and psychiatry. Dr. Boyden’s work has received multiple awards, and has contributed to over 400 peer reviewed publications.
The company was started around the technology invented by Kate Adamala, a scientist in Boyden’s lab and now a professor at the University of Minnesota. The concept for the technology was designed for what Adamala calls synthetic minimal cells. Essentially, they are an attempt at artificial life. Felix filled me in on what these cells are.
“Synthetic minimal cells are basically little fat bubbles that you can encapsulate some biochemistry in to make them actually express genes. Ed [Boyden] had been working with Jeremy Wertheimer on another company called Expansion Technologies, which was based on another of Ed’s inventions. And Jeremy got excited about this synthetic cell technology. They all hit it off, and the three of them co-founded Synlife. And so they brought me on as the first employee, basically, to get the ball rolling in lab.”
Synthetic cells mimic a small set of cellular biochemical reactions. This allows scientists to observe interactions inside a cell with minimal distraction — the normal “hustle and bustle” of multiple cell reactions happening at once is eliminated. They can observe singular processes within a cell in order to better understand how different parts react with one another, normally. This has implications for better understanding the cellular reactions that happen when cells are in abnormal states, such as a cancerous one. Felix started working in the lab to figure out how this technology could be applied.
Synthetic biology as a cancer fighter
One of the projects at Synlife is to engineer a synthetic T cell completely from the bottom-up. T cells are a type of white blood cell that serve as a sort of “smart bomb” that targets cancer cells. Felix expressed his excitement for the ways in which synthetic biology is changing the way we approach cancer and immunology.
“I think engineering T cells from the top down is turning out to be tremendously impactful. And there’s several companies in that space that have incredible value propositions based on what they can engineer the cells to do. For example, at Tim Lu’s company Senti Bio, they’re engineering genetic circuits to control immune cell behavior. Other companies are engineering T cell receptors. You can engineer a single receptor to be specific to interact with one type of cell surface signal. But now you’re using combinations of several engineered receptors to form much more strict criteria for the T cell to interact with the target cell.” By engineering multiple cell receptors on T cells, they are in effect becoming much more precise “smart bombs” for targeting cancer cells.
Synthetic biology as new medicine: human health and the microbiome
Synthetic biology as a field is an expansive and nascent one; scientists are uncovering its many applications and implications for solving global issues, such as sustainability. As a niche subfield crossed between nutrition, medicine, and synthetic biology, the microbiome and its role in human health are burgeoning synbio topics. It was a prevalent theme at this year’s Future Food Tech conference, and has recently been highlighted by giants such as SynBioBeta and Ginkgo Bioworks.
“There are any number of other applications, the microbiome is obviously a super exciting space,” said Dr. Moser. “People are finding more and more interesting things about how the microbiome affects human health and the immune system. There are different ways of generating nutrition from different types of organisms. The analytical tools that are coming online all the time are really exciting. So people are getting more and more insight into what actually affects the body. I was reading about diagnostics, where people are using ultra powerful sequencing to pull out snippets of RNA that were diagnostic of the presence of cancers.”
Not only could they detect the presence of cancers, but synthetic biology could change the way we ingest probiotics. With modified forms of bacteria that can break down other harmful gut bacteria, we could see improved gut health, decreased disease, and even improved brain function.
Plastics, sustainability, novel foods, and the cautionary tale of bacteria
Dr. Moser weighed in about synthetic biology as a means for reducing plastics. “Plastic is actually a really great carbon sink. Because if you bury it, it’ll sit there for 1,000 years. That’s where you want it: in the ground. Inventing organisms that digest plastic in effect injects that carbon into the carbon cycle. You’re just adding more CO₂ to the carbon cycle. I’m more excited about engineering organisms that take CO₂, and turn it into non-biodegradable plastics, because I think that’s a great way of capturing that carbon in the atmosphere. It’s also a great way in general of replacing that petroleum feedstock. So that’s what people tend to go for first, so you don’t use petroleum. So you’re not pulling out any more carbon. Once it’s in the plastic, it stays there. And so I think it’s a great way of fixing carbon: using micro algae and photosynthesis to drive fixation of carbon into polymers that are difficult to degrade. And then disposing of it correctly. We’ve shown that we can do landfilling safely if it’s done properly. So I think it’s a reasonable solution.”
Since his time as an undergraduate at Cornell, Dr. Moser has been driven by sustainability. He made a strangely apt comparison between the demise of bacteria and the potential demise of humans, saying, “I’ve always been interested in sustainability. I think it’s so essential. I think the existential problem for civilization is: how do we become sustainable? We live on a little rock in the middle of space, and right now we get energy mainly from [fossil fuels]. I always think of growth curves for bacteria, they go up exponentially, and then they level out and then they sort of die off because the bacteria will run out of resources. We’re sort of at the beginning of the exponential growth. To avoid [the dying off], we need to figure out how not to just eat everything around us, and to self-regulate and become sustainable. I think that’s really the fundamental challenge for humanity. I don’t think biology is the only way to do it, but a key way by which we need to get there.”
In terms of Dr. Moser’s newfound interest in bridging cellular agriculture and synthetic biology, we talked proteins, algae, and harnessing the elements. “A lot of organisms make protein. There’s lots of very protein-rich foods that we don’t eat. Spirulina is a great example: very protein rich, but nobody likes it because it tastes funny. So can we engineer spirulina to taste delicious? I think there’s a lot of really fascinating ways in which you can genetically modify existing food organisms to make them better foods. Sustainable foods. And so that’s my big interest. Can you make more protein? It’s always a metabolic engineering problem in a way. How can you route enough nitrogen and carbon into the right pathways to increase the amount of protein you make? And what does that look like in E. coli versus yeast versus a plant? Or, in tissue culture, people actually growing muscle cells to make into hamburger patties. There’s all sorts of process challenges there. And I’m sure genetic modification can make a contribution as well. Just making the cells easier to grow, making them more sensitive to growth factors, how to make the growth factors themselves, that’s turning out to be a huge business.”
Written by Thea Burke for Helikon Consulting