At Los Alamos, making science fiction a reality

Los Alamos National Lab
4 min readJun 9, 2021
Niju Narayanan

In Michael Crichton’s 1990 science fiction novel Jurassic Park, scientists working for billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond successfully cloned dinosaur DNA strands with the help of frog DNA. And just like that, these scientists created living dinosaurs.

Although Hammond got many things wrong in the novel, he did get one thing right: Hammond thought like a scientist and acted like an entrepreneur. He homed in on science capable of creating dinosaurs, and he used this science to populate an amusement park like no other. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, scientists often mimic Hammond’s mindset when developing radical new ways to use science to help humanity.

Around the world, a discipline known as synthetic biology continues to take baby steps in making the science fiction of tomorrow a reality today. For instance, scientists have assembled DNA components in living cells to produce new types of molecules with characteristics researchers can exploit to solve useful problems.

These new molecules can, for example, redesign microorganisms to eat pollutants from water, soil, and air. They can modify other microorganisms to produce revolutionary new medicines, such as antibiotics and vaccines. And chemists can create environmentally friendly chemicals, such as modifying yeast to produce rose oil as a substitute for real roses that perfume manufacturers convert into luxury scents.

To achieve these and other innovations, synthetic biologists must assemble DNA parts in living cells to produce new molecules with specific purposes in mind. Although scientists have made significant advancements, there remains what amounts to a tug of war between ensuring that cells experience optimal and continued growth and the actual engineering necessary to synthesize a target molecule to manufacture an ideal product. Scientists must strike a balance between growing cells cost effectively and in large numbers while ensuring the purity of a molecule with a specific application in mind. Many problems can happen during cell growth that affect the final design of a target molecule, so that it does not work exactly as intended.

Rather than pull at either side of this virtual rope in this game of tug of war, why not instead simply eliminate the need for cells in the first place? A team of Los Alamos scientists are developing “cell-free systems.” They take the guts of the cells and use the machinery within the cells to biologically mimic traditional cells. These synthetic cells make it possible to control the development of molecules with specific purposes in mind without the unpredictable problems associated with actual cell growth. Thus, one molecule is designed to help produce a vaccine, whereas another helps create pollutant-eating bacteria.

To help fabricate cheaper and more stable molecules, scientists use biosensors, which exploit biological elements to detect certain chemicals. They also use protein design advancements to design new or evolve existing enzymes to perform a specific purpose or behavior. Both technologies have enabled scientists to create cheaper, high-volume, and more stable molecules, which will be a boon to bioproduct manufacturers. Manufacturers thus will be in a much stronger position to create pure and high-yield products, making it possible for them to make cost-effective products while reducing waste associated with less-than-stellar molecules with performance problems.

With the base science all worked out, Los Alamos scientists realized they needed to start acting more like entrepreneurs. The technology they had in mind could, among other things, help battle pollution, create environmentally friendly chemicals, or redesign microorganisms to feast on pollutants.

To target the science to a specific real-world problem, a member from the science team worked with two Los Alamos programs, Disruptech and the Postdoc Entrepreneur Fellowship, designed to help scientists act like entrepreneurs. That included learning strategies to identify a product and business model so the technology would attract investors, excite future customers, and shift the market from what is being bought now to purchasing a new and improved technology.

Armed with such entrepreneurial tools, the Los Alamos team targeted two areas, improving bioplastics manufacturing and on-demand vaccine development. Both applications depend on optimizing cell-free systems specifically to reduce costs and increase efficiency in manufacturing high-volume, eco-friendly chemicals and materials.

Interest is growing in both applications within the research community as well as with established and startup companies exploring how cell-free solutions could improve their product manufacturing processes, product distribution and profit margins. The team is developing their initial applications with an eye on transitioning them to the private sector. As they gain additional insight into the needs and expectations of bioplastics and vaccine manufacturers, they plan on developing many more applications to transfer to companies that will be transformed by cell-free platforms, products, and processes.

Scientists cannot make dinosaurs come to life yet — and maybe that’s a good thing, considering how Jurassic Park ended. However, they have used synthetic biology to produce new types of molecules. They then honed the technology to form the building blocks of cell-free, high-volume materials like nylon plastic, which can be used to make products like fiber cables, films, car parts, electrical equipment, and flooring. For all his faults, it turns out Jurassic Park’s Hammond got one thing right — it pays to think like a scientist and act like an entrepreneur.

Niju Narayanan works as a Postdoctoral Research Associate the Bioenergy and Biome Sciences (B-11) group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Narayanan is a graduate of the Laboratory’s DisrupTECH program and is a 2019–2020 Entrepreneurial Fellow.

This story first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican



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