UCSC Microbe Machines

Harnessing the power of living organisms, scientists, technologists and artists create a greener future

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Through the lab she heads at SJSU, biologist Elizabeth Skovran is harnessing the power of bacteria to develop a cost-effective method for collecting rare earth elements from used tech. Credit: Skrovan lab

The Bay Area has a recycling problem. It’s true that cities from San Rafael to San Jose have residential recycling services and public trash cans partitioned compartments for both recyclable and non-recyclable waste. But the tech industry—our region’s primary economic driver—has yet to come up with a cost-effective way to reuse the valuable materials inside our handsets, laptops and smartwatches.

It is not impossible to recycle iPhones, lasers and X-ray machines. But it is difficult, energy intensive and expensive. So, ironically, products aimed at lowering our collective carbon footprint, like solar panels and electric car batteries, often end up in landfills after they’ve completed their life cycle.

Not only is this practice wasteful, it also poses an existential threat to the tech industry. That’s because the class of metals known as rare-earth elements—essential to the functionality of everything from touch screens to wind turbines—are, as their name would suggest, rare.

“We’re not doing enough recycling of these rare-earth metals,” says Elizabeth Skovran, a faculty member with San Jose State University’s biology department. According to some reports, 95 percent of the 17 rare-earth elements that go into devices like mobile handsets and LED lights wind up in the dump.

“Landfills in developing countries are filled with these metals,” Skovran says. “If we could just recover them, we wouldn’t have to do so much mining, which is extremely destructive to the environment.”

Soon the worldwide demand for rare-earth elements is likely to outstrip the supply, Skovran says. When that happens, it won’t matter how many more holes we dig. Through the lab she heads at SJSU, she and her team are working on a sustainable solution to this problem. By harnessing the power of bacteria, she hopes to develop a cost-effective method for collecting REEs from used tech.

Skovran has been consumed most of her professional life by a class of microorganisms known as “methylotrophic” bacteria. These bacteria feed on troublesome greenhouse gases such as methanol and methane. But they also have a curious trait that makes them potentially vital to the future of high tech: They consume and store REEs.

These bacteria are capable of extracting rare-earth metals not only from post-consumer electronic garbage, but also from waste byproducts such as “fly ash,” a coal product, and “red mud,” a waste product in aluminum production. The bacteria convert these waste metals into inorganic crystals within their cells. Skovran and her collaborators are working to figure out how to stimulate that process so that harvesting the metals from the bacteria can be commercially viable.

“This process already works,” she says. “We can throw a cell phone in the blender, we can throw in a computer hard drive magnet, or even a mining ore, and our bacteria can eat up the rare-earth metals.”

There’s just one problem. The bacteria are not gluttonous enough; they stop extracting the metals and forming them into crystals when they get full—and they get full quickly. It’s Skovran’s goal to get them to eat more. Our continued use of smartphones and MRI technology, among a thousand other things, might depend on it.

What’s happening in Skovran’s lab is a vivid example of using a natural process for the sake of human progress, an age-old technology that has approached new frontiers in the age of high tech. “Biotech” is too often merely a buzzword—a fuzzy abstraction, referenced in poorly understood practices like DNA sequencing or gene therapy. In fact, biotech can be used to describe any interface between humans and other life forms that incorporates some element of design to make life better for humans, if not always for the other life forms.

Baking and brewing are two of the oldest examples of humans deliberately forming a symbiotic relationship with a microorganism. Though the earliest beer producers and bread makers didn’t know it, they were working with a naturally occurring microscopic fungus—yeast—to create their ales and loaves. Millennia later, in the Victorian Era, an English doctor and inventor by the name of George Merryweather took advantage of leeches’ propensity to seek higher ground when they sensed changes in the atmosphere. His elaborate “tempest prognosticator” used the squirmy parasites to predict coming storms.

Today’s biotech is far more sophisticated than that. A generation of young scientists have grown up in a world where sustainability has been a priority, and innovation the key to success. Underlying many biotech efforts these days is an impulse to find a better way to avoid the environmental degradation wrought by the old-school extraction economy.

There are examples of new approaches to the natural world everywhere. At the Tech Interactive in San Jose, scientists are designing labs to appeal to children and show them how manipulating organic material could make for a viable and rewarding career path. At UC Santa Cruz, a coalition of artists and scientists are shaking up old perceptions of a common, largely unappreciated material of the living world.

In Silicon Valley, a burgeoning start-up called Bolt Threads is developing silk proteins—think spider webs—into durable and sustainable fibers that may make up the clothing of the future. Another company, Zymergen, is creating genetically engineered microbes to replace materials and products of the petrochemical industry.

In so many human endeavors, the old way of doing things is becoming more and more unsustainable. New ways are beginning to emerge.

On a sun-drenched July day in downtown San Jose, while some kids play in the fountains across the street in the Plaza de César Chávez, another group of youngsters are escorted inside the BioTinkering Lab at the Tech Interactive.

The place is small but it’s bright and inviting, like the set of TV cooking show. Smocked instructors welcome the young visitors and their families, while Anja Scholze pulls out a rack of cookie sheets covered with brightly colored, gelatinous blobs.

The blobs are cultures made up of bacteria that were assembled by a different group of kids a week ago. “This is a piece of bio-material,” says Scholze, the program director for biology and design at The Tech. “It can be thick and leathery, or thin and papery, or almost like plastic.”

Today’s kids will work with these bacterial strains to create an elastic, skin-like material for their own use, in anything from keychains to book covers. They will also mix up another batch of cultures to be used by another group of kids. The material is a kind of cellulose created by a certain class of bacteria as a waste byproduct. The world desperately needs a replacement for ocean-choking, endocrine-disrupting plastics. Cultivating this kind of material might mean we could say goodbye to plastics for good.

As a scientist, Scholze lives in that middle space between pure research and classroom teaching. At The Tech, she and her team are engaged in the task of making science comprehensible to the general public—in the case of the BioTinkering Lab, they work to make an incredibly complex subject understandable for 10-year-olds.

“We really want to target the project to be accessible to 10- to 12-year-olds,” she says, pointing to an age group for whom “interactive” often means mashing their fingers against tablets and pressing buttons on audio-visual exhibits. “One of the fundamental changes that we’ve been trying to adapt to over the last few years is: How do we get away from button-pushing?”

What the BioTinkering Lab at The Tech teaches kids is that biotech does not have to be an intimidating and remote concept. “If you have an element that is really tactile and sensory-friendly, that’s a really great way to let young kids participate, by squishing stuff and mashing stuff. They get to touch something smelly and weird, somebody calls it biology and they get to have fun.”

Over at UC Santa Cruz, artists are determined that they will not be left out of the biotech revolution. Sculptor and UCSC faculty member Jennifer Parker co-founded the OpenLab Research Center with physicist Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz explicitly to design collaborations that would be fruitful for both artists and scientists. One of the most prominent projects from OpenLab is called The Algae Society, a collective of researchers and creatives from around the world devoted to the biological wonders of algae and related species.

“It’s the unsung hero of the planet,” Parker says. “When you look at algae, plankton, seaweed and phytoplankton, they’re responsible for about 50 percent of the oxygen produced in the world, and they take CO2 out of the atmosphere.”

The Algae Society counts among its many collaborators not only artists and scientists but the organisms themselves. “Once you start to play with this material and learn more about it and grow different kinds of species like spirulina or bioluminescent algae, they become these characters,” Parker says. “Instead of extracting materials and resources from the planet, what would happen if you thought of these organisms as partners? How would you create art with algae? What would you do? What would it want to do?”

The Algae Society has evolved into a traveling art exhibit, which just closed a long engagement at the MAXI Museum in Santa Barbara and is now set to open in Spain. It’s also spawned the CoAction Lab, a mobile unit combining scientific experimentation and artistic exploration which this summer is traveling across the United States.

As a kind of throwback to the 19th-century fad of collecting specimens of seaweed and mounting them as art pieces, Parker and her students have done seaweed pressings, made ink from algae, and used it as inspiration in everything from sculpture to digital art, all in an effort to break tech’s spell over the public.

“This is all in the service of getting off screens and getting back into this mode of curiosity and wonder,” she says. “You know, ‘Why is that like that? How does that work?’—basic fundamental questions we don’t ask anymore because we’ve removed ourselves from nature. We’re not responsible for measuring science only to find specific kinds of measurable outcomes. We’re really trying to measure joy, curiosity, excitement, pleasure, all those things that are integral to human well-being.”

Back at The Tech, Scholze and her team spend an entire year on one specific project. In the Bio-Tinkering Lab’s first year, the focus was on making bricks and building materials from fungus, then the project was creating pigments from bacteria.

“We always try to pick a concept with a lot of real-world relevance,” Scholze says. “We want to tie back to what is happening at the forefront of biotech, not just some canned version of hands-on biology that is replicating someone else’s experiments. We want to explore something that maybe only a few start-ups are exploring, but is not yet an established product, something is actually cutting edge.”

The BioTinkering Lab has the vibe of a kids’ playhouse but with a distinct science-y bent, with petri dishes used as an artistic design element on the walls. Scholze believes that children need to be able to envision themselves working in the sciences.

“If you look around, it doesn’t like any traditional science lab that you’ve probably ever been in,” she says. “The design was intentional—a hybrid between a lab and a children’s bedroom. You walk into a place that’s very sterile, it’s not a welcoming place to experiment. We want them to feel that this is a place for them and not for somebody else.”

There is an undercurrent to the conversations with people in biotech, a sense of urgency that the extractive era of plastics and peak oil is coming to a crashing end and science’s critical mission is to find other, more sustainable materials with which to build and propel our world forward.

“The integration of the humanities and the arts on one hand, and science and engineering on the other is not just about how to benefit human society but, for this project in particular, how we can prevent human extinction,” says Parker of The Algae Society. “How are we going to support other organisms in a symbiotic relationship so it’s not just us extracting resources for our own use, but making sure that the planet is living in a healthy ecosystem?”

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

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