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.