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Jay Keasling wins Heinz Award

Jay Keasling, a leading authority and pioneer on synthetic biology who has engineered microbial "factories" to manufacture an affordable version of a frontline antimalarial drug and biofuel substitutes for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, has won a 2012 Heinz Award, which is presented by the Heinz Family Foundation and carries with it a cash prize of $250,000.

Among his multiple titles, Keasling is the Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), CEO for DOE's Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biochemical Engineering at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, and director of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC).

"Dr. Keasling is a pioneer in a field few people even know exists but that has profound implications for the future of medicine, chemistry and energy, and for the future of our planet," said Teresa Heinz, who chairs the Heinz Family Foundation, in announcing the award. "Dr. Keasling's research is revealing how we can use natural systems to produce cheaper, more environmentally-friendly compounds for everything from anti-malarial drugs to biofuels. His work, and the deep human compassion that drives it, is proof that we really can invent our way to a more sustainable future."

This year marks the 18th annual presentation of the Heinz Awards which are intended to honor outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions in five areas: Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment. The awards were established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz. In addition to the monetary award, recipients are presented with a medallion. The 2012 Heinz Awards will be presented at a ceremony in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11.

Keasling, 48, who was honored in the Technology, the Economy and Employment category, joins a distinguished classical/modern music composer, an advocate for smarter community design, a champion of diversity in science education, and an architect of responsible climate policies in this year's class of Heinz Award winners.

"I am deeply honored by the recognition of my work by the Heinz Foundation," Keasling said. "The work they have recognized was done by so many motivated, dedicated people in my laboratory, people from Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley, Amyris, OneWorld Health, Sanofi-Aventis and JBEI. These collaborative efforts are great examples of the importance of team science in biology."

Paul Alivisatos, director of Berkeley Lab and a long-time friend and colleague of Keasling said, "Jay Keasling has used his groundbreaking work in synthetic biology to improve the lives of millions of people in some of the most impoverished places on earth, making him a true science hero and most deserving of the Heinz Award. He is an exemplar of Berkeley Lab, who is now using teamwork and synthetic biology to tackle another critical issue of our day: how to harness renewable energy in a clean, economical and scalable fashion."

Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley's Vice Chancellor for Research, who in 2003 named Keasling to head his newly formed Synthetic Biology Department, the world's first such department in a major scientific research institute, said: "Jay Keasling exemplifies the combination of scientific virtuosity with a strong sense of social mission to improve the human condition. He is an inspiration to aspiring and practicing scientists alike."

Synthetic biology is an emerging field of science aimed at engineering microorganisms to produce valuable chemical products from simple, inexpensive and renewable starting materials in a sustainable manner. This can include the design and construction of new biological "devices," such as molecules, genetic circuits or cells, and the re-designing and engineering of existing biological systems, such as microorganisms.

Keasling scored his first major breakthrough in the synthetic biology field in 2003 when he and his colleagues reported that by transplanting genes from yeast and the sweet wormwood tree (Artemsisia annua) into E. coli bacteria, then by-passing the E. coli's metabolic pathway and engineering a new one based on the mevalonate pathway in yeast, they were able to induce the bacteria to produce a chemical precursor to artemisinin, the world's most powerful drug for treating malaria.

In 2004, Keasling received a $42.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through the Institute for OneWorld Health, a San Francisco-based nonprofit pharmaceutical company, to further develop his microbial artemisinin technology. This led to a partnership with Amyris, a biotech start-up co-founded by Keasling, that engineered a strain of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) capable of producing high levels of artemisinic acid, the immediate precursor to artemisinin. Today, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis is poised to provide mass-produced low-cost microbial-based artemisinin that will stabilize supplies and prices and make the drug far more accessible for those who need it most.

Artemisinin is the key component in artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which are the World Health Organization's recommended first-line treatment for malaria. Currently, artemisinin is extracted from sweet wormwood, a fern-like plant grown mostly in China and Vietnam, and manufactured through costly chemical synthesis. Weather and other conditions have led to fluctuating prices and drug shortages. According to the World Health Organization, each year nearly 500 million people become infected with malaria, and nearly three million, mostly children, die from it.

For his breakthrough with artemisinin, Keasling in 2009 received the first Biotech Humanitarian Award from the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He has since been applying these same tools of synthetic biology to the development of advanced biofuels - liquid transportation fuels derived from the solar energy stored in the cellulosic biomass of non-food plants and agricultural waste. The goal is to provide the United States with clean, green and renewable transportation energy that will create jobs and boost the economy.

"Artemisinin is a hydrocarbon and we built a microbial platform to produce it," Keasling has said. "We can remove a few of the genes to take out artemisinin and put in a different set of genes to make biofuels."

Last year, Keasling and his colleagues at JBEI achieved a major milestone in the development of advanced biofuels when they engineered the world's first strains of E. coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into either gasoline, diesel or jet fuels. Unlike ethanol, the advanced biofuels that Keasling's microbes synthesize can replace gasoline on a gallon-for-gallon basis, and can be used in today's engines and infrastructures. These microbes should also be able to one day manufacture other petroleum-based chemicals in addition to fuels.

"Synthetic biology is revolutionizing the way we produce medicine, energy and chemicals. What once seemed impossible is now a reality," Keasling said. "Imagine if all the products now made from petroleum were made from sugar. By applying synthetic biology, the process to create fuels, components of plastic, medicines and more would instead be non-polluting and nearly carbon-neutral, decreasing the production of greenhouse gas and environmental pollution."

Contact: Lynn Yarris
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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