Could Bacteria Save the Planet? Yes — If She Can Train Them
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sarah Richardson is training bacteria to break down the tons of waste accumulating on planet Earth.
By Molly Fosco
Genuine concern shadows Sarah Richardson’s face when the topic turns to bacteria, though not for the reason you’d expect. “I feel bad for them,” she says in the closetlike conference room of her biotechnology startup in Berkeley, California. “I’ve worried about the bacteria for so long now.” Tired of fretting over microbes, Richardson founded MicroByre so that she could finally put those poor bacteria to good use.
Less than two years after launching the company, Richardson, 36, is inching toward her goal: domesticating bacteria. Bacteria are incredibly useful at breaking down waste, and they’re a critical part of the food chain — if they stop doing what they do best, we stop eating. Right now, though, we have no way to control how bacteria use their superpowers. That’s where MicroByre comes in. Richardson wants to “train” bacteria, the same way humans train animals to be useful — and with good reason. If we can control when bacteria break down biomass and what it turns into, we can greatly reduce the estimated 11.2 billion tons of solid waste collected worldwide each year. Richardson believes she can accomplish this in the next two years.
What’s more, if we train bacteria to break down biomass, plastics could be next. There’s no timeline yet, Richardson says, but bacteria may one day be used to help break down the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic debris humans have produced over the past six decades.
Richardson wants to domesticate bacteria for more than just breaking down waste — she’s also developing a method for using bacteria instead of chemicals in industrial manufacturing. We use petroleum to produce many things that bacteria could be used for instead. “Once upon a time, nylon was made from oats,” Richardson says. “Then, one company switched to butane and it hasn’t been economical to go back.” If we domesticate bacteria, she argues, we can optimize production processes, making materials that are biodegradable and safer to transport.
MicroByre is currently funded by Cyclotron Road, which is funded by the Department of Energy. The company plans to earn revenue by licensing trained bacteria to companies, with the goal of making the bacteria cheaper than petroleum. “The real proof that this works will be if we can knock a petroleum product off the shelf and do it while making money,” Richardson says.
Richardson is among the very few taking the bacteria with good traits and making them workable or friendlier for use in synthetic biology.
As a Black female founder and CEO — of which the Fortune 500 includes zero — Richardson is a rarity. And while she never thought she’d be a CEO, becoming a scientist seemed the obvious path. Growing up in Baltimore, Richardson was a science-fiction junkie, devouring Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and pretty much anything by Kurt Vonnegut, and watching Star Trek with her father. A Black stay-at-home dad in the ’80s, Richardson’s father was an anomaly himself; her mom worked as a correctional specialist for Montgomery County. Richardson and her dad bonded over sci-fi, and he built bookshelves that her mom filled with novels that Richardson and her sister read.
Richardson’s father died in 2008, but their shared passion shaped a future of finding and conquering new frontiers. After studying biology at the University of Maryland, Richardson enrolled in the human genetics and molecular biology program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she joined Joel Bader’s lab. In 2006, Bader and Richardson began studying synthetic biology, a field then in its infancy. Much of synthetic biology has attempted to identify a valuable trait within bacteria and then transfer that trait to a “model organism” like E. coli or yeast, which are the easiest bacteria to work with. But the process often fails. Richardson is among the very few working the other way around: taking bacteria with good traits — the “non-model organisms” — and making them workable or friendlier for use in synthetic biology.
“Not only is Sarah the right person to lead MicroByre, she’s just about the only person,” says Bader. “She has no technical limitations.”
Richardson’s technical aptitude comes from years of hard work. She has studied computer science, medicine, bioengineering and applied math. But while she’s knowledgeable in these areas, Richardson insists you wouldn’t want to hire her as an expert in any of them. “I’m a generalist, not a specialist,” she says. “I’m the bridge — I can get the specialists to understand each other.”
But in such a young scientific industry, there are many unknowns. For one, the foundation on which MicroByre was built could prove difficult to scale. “We’re entering into a second generation of biotechnology,” says Drew Endy, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford. “But we’re only in the toddler-to-8-year-old phase right now.” Endy says cultivating new bacteria in the laboratory is exceedingly hard because “we don’t know how to care for them or feed them yet.” It’s also possible that the toolkit biologists use to grow well-established organisms could be inadequate for the unfamiliar organisms they’re just learning to grow. Still, Endy applauds Richardson for looking at the problem through an innovative lens.
“Unknowns? What unknowns?” Richardson asks, unfazed. In fact, she believes she has all of the necessary science to solve this problem — the only real limitation is capital. Others have attempted similar processes in the field and failed, so there’s no shortage of skepticism in the scientific community. “Some scientists ask what makes me different,” Richardson says. “But I’ve learned from those failed cases and there are none that we don’t have an answer to.”
When she’s not wrangling germs in the lab, Richardson plays guitar, rock climbs and spends time with her husband, Brian Olson, a senior software developer in machine learning at LinkedIn. And she’s still an ardent book collector — she even won a book-collecting contest in grad school.
What Richardson is attempting could dramatically reduce waste and chemical pollution, yielding powerful environmental benefits. It could also make a lot of people think more fondly of bacteria.