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Eating Methane and Plastics, and Staring into a Greener World

Women Biotech Entrepreneurs Are Unleashing the Power of Synthetic Biology to Save the Environment

From climate change to ocean acidification to a global biodiversity crisis, it’s no secret that the environment is in some deep trouble and we, as its inhabitants, have some difficult challenges to overcome.  It’s also no secret that some of us care more than others about the state of the environment.  Researchers have found that things like your political affiliation, your level of education, and where you live have a lot to do with how personally invested you are in helping tackle the throng of environmental crises now facing the planet.

But there’s another less talked-about predictor of environmental awareness that is not quite as obvious: gender.  Research is now showing that, compared to men, women tend to care more about the environment and be more supportive of environmentally-friendly businesses and policies.  They’re also willing to fight for the environment and, on average, leave a smaller personal carbon footprint compared to men.

It makes perfect sense, then, that among the many women speakers at SynBioBeta this year, three will be speaking about how their company’s unique technology is taking part in the vanguard against methane, a particularly notorious contributor to climate change. In the U.S., methane is the second-most emitted greenhouse gas after CO2, but its pound-for-pound impact on the climate is 25 times more significant due to its greater capacity to trap heat.  There is therefore a great need to mitigate methane emissions associated with the natural gas and oil industry, livestock agriculture, and landfills and wastewater.

Among those who have taken up this critical challenge are Elizabeth Clarke, CTO and co-founder of Industrial Microbes, Ezhil Subbian, CEO and co-founder of String Bio, and Molly Morse, CEO and co-founder of Mango Materials.  All three are working on platforms that not only mitigate methane emissions, but harness them to produce valuable renewable products.

With the motto “methane is the new sugar,” Elizabeth Clarke’s Bay Area-based startup Industrial Microbes could not be clearer about the vision it holds for the future of biobased production.  Her company is engineering bacteria and yeast to make them hungry for methane (which, they note, is a cheaper option to feed them compared to sugar or oil) and to make them spit out chemicals that are building blocks for important raw materials.

When Ezhil Subbian founded String Bio in 2013, she brought over 12 years of experience to the table from her previous work on scaling up the production of renewable products.  The platform of her company relies on bacteria that capture waste methane and transform it into valuable end-products for the feed and aquaculture industry.  Subbian’s company, which is based in India, hope to be part of the solution for feeding the rapidly-growing population of the Asian Subcontinent.

Finally, over at Mango Materials, Morse is putting the intellectual property from her PhD research to work by developing a scheme for manufacturing the bioplastic precursor known as poly-hydroxybutyrate (PHB).  The process relies on methane-eating bacteria (whose food is sourced from wastewater treatment plants or landfills) to construct the PHB polymer cheaply and efficiently.  Plastics made from PHB are biodegradable, making the process a “closed loop” whereby permanent plastic waste is not created.

Oh, and to solve the problem of the existing mountains of non-biodegradable plastic waste piling up around the world?  Look no further than another woman executive speaking at SynBioBeta SF.  Miranda Wang is the CEO and co-founder of BioCellection Inc., a company that sources plastic waste as feedstock for microbes that upcycle it into new products.

While Elon Musk figuratively compared being an entrepreneur to “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death,” these women biotech entrepreneurs are literally making microbes eat methane and plastics (and staring into a better future). It is without question that women in synthetic biology are a force to be reckoned with on the road to a greener globe.  Clarke, Subbian, Morse, and Wang are only a handful of the extraordinary women who are dedicating their talents to a problem that promises to impact us all.  Hear from all of them and more at SynBioBeta SF 2017.


Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson is a freelance science writer and adjunct professor of biology at the Maricopa Community Colleges in the Phoenix metropolitan area. She holds an M.S. in Biology from Arizona State University and has a background in both wet lab research and venture capital consulting. She lives in Tempe, AZ with her dogs, cats, chickens, and goat.

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