Learning from Nature: Synthetic Biology

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The heart of the biotechnology revolution, biochemical engineering has seen the launch of entire industries. Biochemical engineers work to develop sustainable solutions to some of our greatest challenges – whether that’s creating better biofuels and biodegradable plastics, or advancing large-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing during pandemics.

From the discovery and manufacture of penicillin in 1918, the extraction of nature's undiscovered potential is no less important today, sitting at the intersection of engineering, maths, biology, and chemistry.

The problem, however, comes when applying traditional engineering principles and practices to biology. Unlike the underlying principles building something more static like a bridge, nature rarely offers a consistent framework to build upon; it changes, ever evolving. Applying engineering to nature requires a shift in thinking. Synthetic biology is all about learning from nature, and adapting that to create solutions for the benefit of humanity.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we speak to Kristala Prather, the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and Principle Investigator of the Prather Research Group.

We unpack Kristala's work in biochemical engineering and synthetic biology and her route into the profession, explore why nature throws out the traditional rulebooks of engineering, and discuss ways to make STEM more accessible to future generations.

About the Guest

Kristala Jones Prather is an American professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After being inspired to study engineering by her physics and calculus teachers, Prather graduated from MIT with a Bachelor of Science in 1994 and completed her PhD in 1999 at the University of California.

After working for four years in industry, Prather joined MIT where she has remained for over 15 years. During this time, Prather has accrued nearly a dozen honours and awards such as the Martin Luther King Jr. leadership award in 2017, and her election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2018. Today, she is an investigator at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and leads the Prather Lab at MIT.

Episode highlights

  • “We're very proud of the fact that as a discipline, chemical engineering is extremely diverse.”
  • “I'm very proud of being an engineer, I'm very happy with my engineering discipline. But there's a lot of science in what we do. And the same thing is true that for a lot of people who are trained as scientists, there's a lot of engineering and what they do. It's oftentimes more useful … to think of them [things] in terms of the problems that we're trying to solve.”
  • “One of the things that I find most fascinating in the relationship between engineering and biology, is just how much of a challenge nature is to apply the traditional rules of engineering … as engineers, what we're taught is that our goal is to first observe the physical world around us, then we develop mathematical equations to help us to describe that world. … if you try to apply those same principles and practices to biology, biology laughs at you.”
  • “I actually think it is critically important to admit mistakes and to not be perfect. I think there is a tremendous pressure to be perfect. And I find myself constantly fighting back against that because I think it is ridiculous and unfair and wholly unsustainable. It's just not.”
  • “What I try to be is honest, and authentic, and as genuine as I can be because I think that's going to be most useful and most helpful – especially in this this role that younger women may be looking to, to figure out what options or what paths they may have that they choose to pursue.”

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

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