Discover chose Jay Keasling as their scientist of the year and asked me to interview him. Keasling, who directs the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, is trying to get either E. coli or yeast to crank out a powerful malaria drug normally only made by the sweet wormwood plant. I had already been getting familiar with Keasling’s work, since it is a great example of the sort of work that’s being done on E coli, the subject of my book. So it was a pleasure to talk to Keasling at length about this ambitious project.
Keasling’s group is taking natural products drug discovery and development to the next level by cloning synthetic gene cassettes and putting them into a tractable host system, thereby overcoming the problems of medicinal plant sourcing or cultivation (or the need for hoardes of synthetic chemists, no offense). The fact that Keasling is doing this work for artemisinin, to treat malaria worldwide, has led to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, obviously, the admiration of the editors at Discover.
Zimmer does his usual superb job of making a complex subject exceedingly approachable and exciting – read the interview.