Synthetic biology is poised to revolutionize everything from health care to climate change—and Michael Smanski is making the most of it.
By Mary Hoff
The exploding yeast and fluorescent fish are interesting, for sure. But for Michael Smanski, the real attraction of synthetic biology is the chance to work at the cusp of a new era in biology—one that holds promise for improving food production, medical care, climate change adaptation, pollution cleanup and more.
Living things use DNA as a template for creating proteins, which in turn control the processes that make life possible. Synthetic biology creates new forms of DNA and enlists microbes, plants, or other organisms to use these new forms to produce products or functions beneficial to humans.
“Twenty years ago, the field of biology went through an interesting phase change that was catalyzed by the Human Genome Project: the ability to read DNA. And it touched every area of biology,” says Smanski, McKnight Land Grant professor in the College of Biological Sciences “The phase change we’re going through now is even more exciting than that—and that’s the ability to write with DNA. It’s changing biology from a descriptive science, where we’re trying to learn about nature, to an engineering science, where we can ask, ‘What can life be programmed to do?’”
In Smanski’s case, the answer to that question appears virtually boundless. Trained as a biochemist and bacteriologist, he came to the University in 2014 because of its strength in both engineering and the natural sciences. In the few short years since, both synthetic biology and his research have expanded dramatically. Assembling a team of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students with expertise in computer science, chemistry and engineering as well as biology, he began exploring strategies for creating DNA-based assembly lines that microbes could use to make materials useful for humans.
In one line of research, he and his colleagues have been working to optimize a bacteria-based system that produces drugs to treat disorders such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease. In another, he has led development of a novel strategy for ensuring that engineered organisms can’t produce viable progeny with their wild relatives (hence the exploding yeast).
More recently, Smanski has begun applying synthetic biology to more complex organisms, such as vascular plants, insects, and vertebrates. By modifying their genomes to incorporate useful traits while also removing their ability to breed with unmodified relatives, he’s creating innovative strategies for controlling disease-causing and ecosystem-disrupting pests without resorting to poisons.
“We have a few projects in plants to try to translate this for agriculture,” he says. Novoclade, a University biotech startup he helped found and for which he serves as chief technology officer, is exploring applications for controlling mosquitoes and stopping the spread of invasive carp (hence the fluorescent fish).
Some of the biggest challenges related to his work are not about altering molecules and coaxing them to perform desired tasks. Rather, they relate to the kinds of issues entrepreneurs encounter with any new technology: making sure they’re addressing real needs; identifying and mitigating potential unintended consequences, complying with regulatory constraints, listening and incorporating input from various stakeholders, scaling, and more. So, for instance, he’s involved in a national Manufacturing Innovation Institute called BioMADE that’s working to bridge the large and often unwieldy gap between being able to do something in a laboratory and being able to do it on a commercial scale. And he’s consulting with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, tribal governments, and others to ensure their concerns are addressed and their needs are met with his carp work.
“We think a lot about translating these technologies to the field and trying to do it responsibly, because we don’t want to develop a technology that the public doesn’t want,” he says. “We’re not just teaching people, we’re learning from them in ways that helps guide the direction that we take.”
As he sets his sights on new directions, Smanski is excited about the College of Biological Sciences’ recently announced efforts to make the University of Minnesota an international hub for frontline synthetic biology research and development.
“We’re excited to see the details emerge,” he says. “There are so many interesting directions that the field can take right now”—from advancing and applying the new tools to engineering a person’s cells to fight cancer, to reducing waste in food production, producing materials to replace climate-disrupting fossil fuels, developing crops that can thrive in the face of climate change and more.
As far as what’s next for the Smanski lab—even Smanski himself suspects it’s beyond imagination.
“Throughout my career and throughout the time frame of my lab, we let the science take us in the most interesting directions,” he says. “We’re going to keep going where the science leads us.”