Insights from a Strain Engineer: The Power of Strain Engineering in Food and Beyond

Lexin Ann Morales     

Lexin recently spoke to Molly Gordon, a fungal strain engineer. Her role involves bioinformatics, fermentation, and targeted genetic modifications. She is currently working on different fungi, targeting molecule production, and more.

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Molly chose to get her feet wet early on in her undergraduate career and joined a research group to explore opportunities that she could pursue. Motivated by biological questions and growing curiosity, she found herself pursuing this niche in grad school at Johns Hopkins studying fundamental cell biology phenomena underlying cancer cell progression using budding yeast as a model organism. After graduating pivoted to become a fungal  Strain Engineer working at a precision fermentation biotech startup company.

Shaping the Future of Vegan Food

As a vegetarian for almost two decades, Molly thought there was nothing more perfect than applying her strain engineering skills to work on fermenting molecules for alternative protein food products. "Studying disease-related research, you usually don't get to see the product that you’re working on. So when I found out about working on precision fermented molecules that can enhance a variety of vegan food options--the idea of actually eating the product that I helped generate strains for really excited me," she shares.

Her day-to-day in the lab varies from genome engineering mutant strains, validating desired genome edits, preparing samples for whole genome sequencing, or interacting with other teams for monitoring of products.

For Molly, the good thing about strain engineering is it isn't a disappear and move on to the next project kind of work. "In my role now, I can actually eat the food from the strain that I helped make, which makes it more exciting.

A little treasure chest with a big impact: The influence of strain engineering in food, people, and environment

For Molly, the impact of strain engineering on the future of food is so big that it's hard to fully grasp. Its impact is not just limited to catering to vegans and vegetarians; the goal is to create products that closely mimic their traditional counterparts at a molecular and chemical level. For example, some companies aim to ferment molecules like dairy proteins or haemoglobin from animal sources in microorganisms, providing options for those with dietary restrictions or preferences.

"Its impact is about giving people the freedom to enjoy delicious food that aligns with their cultural and dietary preferences," Molly starts. "Take lactose intolerance, for example. By fermenting dairy proteins and creating your own milk products, there's no need to add back lactose or other unfavorable compounds. Similarly, companies like Impossible Foods would not need to add cholesterol to their burgers, making it a more appealing choice for people who need to watch their cholesterol levels but still want to indulge in meat alternatives." Molly also stated the importance of strain engineering in the environment.

"The environmental impact of strain engineering is fairly large, too," she shares. "Especially when compared to traditional animal agriculture. For example, the production of many medically relevant compounds can rely on harvesting from animals or specific plants, and can now be revolutionized through microorganism fermentation. This has a positive impact on both the environment and land use."

Strain engineering: A collaborative role

If there's one thing that needs to be thought about a lot in strain engineering, it is that it doesn't only revolve inside the strain engineering lab--it's a very collaborative role, and that's why having strong collaborative skills is important. As Molly puts it: "The job doesn't just end when you validate a strain, there's a huge collaborative aspect to it. In my current role, I'm deeply involved in strain engineering, which means I do a lot of things. I check how well our strains are doing, help choose the best producers for our molecule of interest, and work closely with the High Throughput and fermentation screening teams to ensure the final product turns out great. I enjoy the variety in my work, and it's something I love doing."

Knowledge about bioinformatics & data analysis: Key skills for success

"When you engineer a strain, the obvious next question is, did you engineer it correctly?" Molly says. She also shared the importance of being flexible and detail-oriented in strain engineering. "When it comes to cutting-edge genome engineering technology, it's crucial to check for mistakes like adding extra copies or accidentally deleting off-target genes. Anyone stepping into this role should have some know-how in analyzing this data or be eager to learn. Understanding the latest in genome engineering is a must. Prioritize research and gain experience with various organisms to show adaptability. Be open to experimenting with different microorganisms. Many universities offer microbiology and bioinformatic classes, a great starting point to explore labs focused on this type of research."

"I'm really excited about the vast array of different organisms that I'm seeing companies use now, unlike before," Molly shares. I'm really excited about the idea that today, we're not only relying on the traditional workhorses of model organisms, and it will continue to evolve."

Molly Gordon

Venturing into the unknown: One of the things to be excited about in the strain engineering space

"In the past, people only liked microorganisms. However, today, people are shifting their focus and interests to larger, macro-organisms.

Molly is positive that there are a lot of things in strain engineering that are not answered yet, and the future holds many innovations to be excited about: "We have a lot to discover from other organisms that haven't been explored much. They can be tricky to edit genetically, but once we crack the code, we might lead the way in new genome engineering methods. So, I'm looking forward to being open to different organisms' potential in the future."

Molly Gordon is a Strain Engineer based in the San Francisco Bay area. This article is based on the series: Insights from a Strain Engineer by Gravel. Subscribe via our LinkedIn newsletter and email newsletter for the latest updates weekly.