According to Vikramaditya Yadav, biological systems have a considerable head start on us when it comes to solving sophisticated problems in chemistry and chemical engineering. While we struggle to sort out the behaviour of molecules that might generate new drug compounds or be the source of hydrocarbon fuels, humble microorganisms may have long since mastered the very processes we seek.

Soon after joining the University of British Columbia’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering last year, Yadav began setting up a laboratory to take advantage of this approach, which he dubbed the Biofoundry. “As chemists and chemical engineers, we are running elaborate foundries,” he says. “We’re making materials and things that add value to everyday life. Now we’re just using the engine of biology to achieve the same goals. This includes the production of fuels, pharmaceuticals and polymers and even cleaning up the environment.”

Earlier this year, thanks to a total of $450,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the BC Knowledge Development Fund and various equipment manufacturers, Yadav has been able to outfit the Biofoundry with much more of the necessary infrastructure to pursue this goal. For example, the lab now includes a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer that can be linked directly with a bioreactor in order to quantify the carbon balance within cells. Similarly, a newly acquired high-performance liquid chromatograph will make it possible to selectively re-engineer cells for achieving specific manufacturing goals. “These are much needed tools for the type of research that we do,” says Yadav, who is working with a plant geneticist to obtain genomic information from plants that might have pharmaceutical properties. If that information can be transferred into microorganisms that multiply more rapidly, the testing of those properties can be conducted far more efficiently than the almost random trial-and-error strategy many drug companies find themselves forced to adopt. “It opens up an entirely new paradigm for synthesizing drugs,” he says. “By knowing what sort of active sites we want our molecules to bind into, we have computational techniques where we can simulate some of these sites in a rapid way. Instead of going out and screening everything under the moon, you are now looking at some very privileged chemical spaces where the probability of success is high.”