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Summer 2011 Blog - Max Schubert

Max Schubert is spending twelve weeks with Bay Area biotechnology company Amyris.

 

June 30, 2011

 
Microbes producing biofuels in controlled environments

This week is my 6th week interning at Amyris Inc. in Emeryville, California through the Cal Energy Corps, and today marks the halfway point of my internship. Amyris began with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a fermentation process that creates a stable, low-cost supply of Artemisenin, an anti-malarial drug.

This grant, and the royalty-free licensing of this technology, was coordinated through the Institute for OneWorld Health, a non-profit pharmaceutical company (I was ecstatic to learn that such a thing exists!). The grant resulted in not only the creation of a vastly cheaper and more stable supply of this medicine, but the founding of a company committed to developing and using biological tools and biological synthesis for the greater good. Amyris began using the technology they had developed, and the people they had assembled for the Artemisenin project to create alternatives to petrochemical products, created through fermentation. This is the company that I entered as an intern.

My internship is with the High-Throughput Screening team at Amyris. We use automated assays to screen thousands of strains of yeast for desirable properties, and production of compounds of interest. This has been a great introduction to using automation for experiments, and dealing with large sets of data: practical things not emphasized in my studies at Berkeley, but certainly increasingly important in the field of biology… but I’d like to emphasize the abstract things I’ve learned over the technical, here.

 

 

This robot, “Sir Pix-a-lot,” transfers, or “picks” thousands of different,
distinct microbes from a giant petri dish.

That is, I’m learning more than I ever could have in class about how organizations achieve goals such as curing disease or finding a better source for a petroleum product, using biology. The process is very much different than purely scientific investigation, and fraught with challenges not purely of a technical nature, but of organization and communication. Amyris is a company that decides every day how to best proceed with the vision that started the company, while growing and encountering new challenges. Forgive the extended metaphor, but I personally share many similar challenges to Amyris. What is my vision? How do I sustain this vision as I grow? What resources do I need? Whose help should I ask for? How do I communicate my goals, coordinate my many wants and needs, and ultimately sustain the pursuit of my vision: using living systems to forge a new way forward? All these questions represent challenges in both my life after graduation, and for this growing company.

 
Lab coats at Amyris

I’ve been exposed to some real-world challenges, and been able to talk with brilliant people who ensure that these challenges are overcome. I’m learning so much about using science and industry to change the way we think about energy, and the pace at which this industry, and this company, is moving is inspirational to be exposed to.

 

August 1, 2011

 

Here is a link to a short news clip featuring Amyris, that shows many of my co-workers:http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Clorox_Plans_to_Clean_More_Than_Just_Your_Clothes_Bay_Area-125937463.html
 
As the video explains, one goal of Amyris is to create microbial metabolisms that make chemicals currently derived from petroleum, such as fuels and plastics, as well as implement commercial production of these products at scale. I work with the robotics seen in the pictures and videos above to screen thousands of strains of microbes and pick the “winners” that are most likely to be successful at producing chemicals.

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