Insights from a Strain Engineer: A Glimpse into Gas Fermentation Engineering

Lexin Ann Morales     

Lexin Morales is the Marketing Lead of Gravel, an ingredient data intelligence platform based in London, UK. Gravel features an article series about strain engineers and fermentation engineers in the biotech industry for aspiring, young graduates wanting to become strain engineers in biotech startups.

Lexin recently spoke to Diego Orol,  one of the lead scientists in Metabolic Engineering in National Renewable Energy Centre (CENER) in Spain. His role evolves around the genetic manipulation of microorganisms to gain insight into their metabolism in order to produce high-value products through fermentation. In other words, domesticate bacteria to make them produce products of industrial interest. As a Strain Engineer, Diego emphasized the importance of having broad skills and knowledge base to become successful.

A Day in a Gas Fermentation Engineer's Life

As a doctor in Microbiology and Biochemistry in the metabolic engineering field, Diego Orol did his masters in Chalmers University in Gotemburg. With a PhD in University of Nottingham and postdoc in University of Bristol, his role mainly focuses on the genetic manipulation of microorganisms and gas fermentation technology.

"We are trying to implement a new way to produce the same platform chemicals all industries have been using for decades. However, we try to do it by meeting the requirements the circle economy requests," he shares. "By adapting the procedures, we make room in modern innovation for better production yields, less waste, and a significantly lower environmental impact".

In simple terms, Diego is working on using gases like methane (CH4), Carbon dioxide (CO2), or carbon monoxide (CO) as a sole food source for bacteria--and these bacteria are naturally good at consuming these gases. "What we do is tweak their genetic makeup to produce useful things like simple chemicals, proteins, and other materials that have value in various industries. The idea is to make these products more affordable, quickly, and in an environmentally friendly manner," he shares.

A Role That Eliminates Global Threats

Aside from manipulating genomes and generating potential chemicals, one of the most exciting things for Diego is the impact of his role on the environment. "Living in Spain, a country actively addressing environmental concerns, presents an opportunity with two significant aspects," Diego shares. "Firstly, it involves tackling the pressing issue of waste management, which poses a global threat to our planet Secondly, it provides a chance to engage in the creation of impactful solutions. This role can genuinely make a difference in various sectors, including pharma, materials, and even the food industry. It's not only exciting and fulfilling but also a way to contribute positively to society and witness tangible results that benefit the world."

Navigating Gas Fermentation with Better Communication

In gas fermentation, there are a lot of challenging things--especially when working with new strains. According to Diego, one of the biggest challenges in working in this area is the frustration of working with the unknown. Sometimes, things do not go as you expect–and that requires a never-ending fight against nature and a constant exercise of patience and mindset changes that make you adapt to what the project requires from you. To deal with it: It's all about staying calm, adapting, and keeping communication open. As he puts it: "Teamwork and leadership are very important. Communication, rest, and productive meetings (with coffee or not hehe) are essential to keep the project up-to-date.” Another cherry on top? Communicating with people in your team with different expertise.

"Think about it–this is why having a multidisciplinary team in the field is important. 10 guys with the same background might solve fewer issues than 5 with 5 different backgrounds. Different approaches have different ways to figure out the same thing."

Observation and Curiosity: The Key Aspects in Gas Fermentation & Science

For Diego, being a Strain Engineer is like any other job--but being observant and curious are a must to be successful. "Curiosity drives innovation. Researchers who are curious about finding new ways to improve processes are more likely to discover novel techniques and technologies," he shares. Of course, observation comes in handy, too. Sometimes, it isn't all about the technicalities. "Of course, you need a specific background and expertise, but basically, inspiration needs to find you working.”

While other people see the gas fermentation industry as a first career option, for Diego, it was a totally random and different choice. "I didn't figure out what I wanted to do until I was 24 or 25, as my background is in marine biology," he said. "This was the right path in science, and because of that, I truly enjoyed the journey. For students or people figuring out which path to take: Don't be in a hurry," Diego advised. And when things don't go out of your way in the laboratory: "I recommend them patience. Enjoy the journey but keep focused on what you like. The path is tough but pleasant in the end if you make the right choices!”

In Gas Fermentation, the Potential is Infinite

The gas fermentation niche is a pretty new field, so the potential is infinite. For Diego, the challenges and opportunities are endless."The future of this industry is massive. Scaling up is a challenge for which the future of this industry will have to go in the next 5-10 years—surely, this is where the success will be shown."