Scientists Talk Sustainability at the Inaugural Symposium on Synthetic Biology | News Center

Clam-inspired concrete binders. Michael Lepech, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering; Posu Huang, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Bioengineering

Try to remove the clam from a stone with your bare hands – it’s not easy. Scientists have taken inspiration from this bivalve’s natural super glue, made up of protein-laden tough fibers, to create a greener version of a key component of concrete, one of the world’s most common building materials. Concrete is essentially a mixture of water, sand, gravel and something known as a binder. The binder, often composed of limestone and clay, requires a lot of resources to create and is, from a sustainability perspective, problematic. Its production accounts for 4.5% of all greenhouse gases and 7% of CO22 emissions. Lepech and Huang use synthetic biology to build a kind of molecular “glue” using proteins and minerals.

Weed-killing tomatoes. Jen Brophy, PhD, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering; Beth Satelli, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering

What if we could turn the docile tomato plant we know and love into a master of self-defense? Brophy and Satelli hope to give the plant, whose growth can be stunted by competing weeds, a new power: releasing herbicides. Their goal is to create a tomato plant that secretes something called momilactone, a chemical that has been shown to suppress weed growth. The idea is for the plant to selectively release the herbicide at the root tips without compromising its fruit.

Converting plastic waste into palm oil components. Matteo Cargnello, PhD, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering; Jennifer Cochran, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering

Even if we recycle plastics, they are a problem. A plastic water bottle doesn’t turn into another plastic water bottle — it degrades too much. And discarded plastic often pollutes the ocean. Researchers dream of something called chemical recycling, where discarded items such as plastic are broken down into constituent parts that are then used to build something new. Cochran, Cargnello and their team plan to use chemicals to break down recycled plastic and turn it into palm oil. As palm oil producers destroy forests to plant palm trees and plastics pile up in the oceans, such a process can protect the environment on both fronts.

Lab meat. Helen Blau, PhD in Microbiology and Immunology; Sarah Heilshorn, Ph.D., Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

Of all meats, beef has the biggest impact on the environment, but global beef consumption is increasing. That’s why Blau and Heilshorn are embarking on a new project in their lab: growing steak from cow cells. This new approach to satiating carnivores is known as lab cultured meat or cell farming. The researchers’ goal is to create sustainable real meat, not plant-based meat substitutes. Others have tried to grow beef in the lab, but this has resulted in food products that are closer to ground beef than a slab of steak. So how do you take beef pasta and turn it into tenderloin? Scaffolding. The team is turning to 3D printing using biological materials to create a structure for the cultured cells to grow in a way that recapitulates real meat.

To close the symposium, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavin shared his vision for how campus researchers will usher in a new era of discovery rooted in synthetic biology. He emphasized three key components: deepening human knowledge, enabling interdisciplinary teams, and turning research findings into real solutions.

“There’s an expression I like to use: ‘Nobody can whistle a symphony.’ It takes an entire orchestra to play it,” he said. “As I think about the sustainability challenges we face and the solutions they will require, this has never felt more true.”

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