The Living Cell Factory: Natalia Kakko

To stay competitive, it is vital for industries to increase productivity. Typically this is done by improving the site of manufacturing, such as a factory. Synthetic biology is no different. Natalia Kakko, a doctoral student at the Center for Young Synbio Scientists, is working on the vital task of streamlining the productivity of cells. By improving “cellular factories,” her work could enable some (or all) synthetic biology-based companies to be more productive and more profitable.

The smallest unit of life, each living cell is remarkably complex. Some are complete organisms in and of themselves, others serve specialized purposes within a larger organism. Most cells serve multiple functions, some for their own survival, such as synthesizing proteins for growth, and some in service to the larger organism, such as blood cells transporting gases throughout the body. In the lab, when we want a single cell to produce something specific, for example raw material for bioplastics, we want that cell to be as narrowly focused as possible. Kakko is working on honing and narrowing the focus of target cells. For instance, if a cell stops synthesizing proteins for its own growth and puts all its resources into producing bioplastics, fewer cells are needed to produce the same amount of bioplastic. If this sounds cruel, it’s important to remember that these are bacterias and yeasts, single cell organisms which lack consciousness.