From human health to climate health

Molecular engineers are using lessons gleaned from biology to help save the planet.

By Anneke Cole
Jennifer Cochran stands on campus and smiles

Cochran is co-leading an effort to convert commonly discarded plastics into an edible oil. Background photo: Roberto Sorin, Unsplash

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Jennifer Cochran has spent her career developing novel therapeutics for cancer. It isn’t work you typically associate with combating the climate crisis.

But within Stanford Bioengineering, a new conversation has taken hold, around the convergence of biology and sustainability. What if molecular engineers like her could step out of their lane to explore entirely new solutions—not for treating human disease but for saving the environment? 

She’s now co-leading an effort to convert commonly discarded plastics into palm oil, an edible oil that’s used in nearly half of all packaged supermarket products, from peanut butter to instant noodles. The project draws upon similar tools and techniques that have been used for the last two decades to advance treatments in oncology and regenerative medicine.   

“The molecules and atoms don’t care what the applications are,” says Cochran, who is the Addie and Al Macovski Professor of Bioengineering and senior associate vice provost of the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research. “Synthetic biology is a fertile and untapped area of research for climate-related challenges.”

Cochran’s Stanford colleagues are just beginning to explore the possibilities: Developing drought-resistant plants and weed-resistant tomatoes. Making “leather” and other materials from mushrooms. Growing a steak from bovine cells—without sacrificing the cow. Creating new and renewable sources of biofuels. Finding biological solutions to manufacture cement without so much air pollution. 

For Cochran and Matteo Cargnello, associate professor of chemical engineering, the current focus is on plastic waste—specifically polyethylene, by far the most discarded and least recycled plastic in the world.

to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges,
it is critical to have teams of people that aren’t siloed working on problems together. At Stanford, we have a long history of interdisciplinary research in our DNA.”
Jennifer Cochran
Jennifer smiles in a blazer and red glasses

Background photo: Charles Etoroma, Unsplash

Together, Cochran and Cargnello are pioneering methods to break down polyethylene using inorganic catalysts. The components are then fed to microbes, which “upcycle” it into usable oils. The implications of a sustainably generated oil like palm oil would be hard to overstate, given its array of applications: Palm oil is a common cooking oil in Asian and African countries; it’s used in edible products such as pizza, donuts, and chocolates; and it’s also found in deodorants, shampoos, toothpaste, and cosmetics. (U.S. consumers know it as that substance that keeps your peanut butter from separating.)

It would also help address the problem of deforestation. The extensive use of palm oil has made it a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutans, the Borneo pygmy elephant, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. 

Traditional sources of funding are tough to find for a burgeoning field like synthetic biology. From the outset, there were two strikes against this project: Cochran has a limited track record in the field of sustainability, and the convergence of biology and sustainability is a new area of research. Right now, Cochran and Cargnello’s work is being supported by a seed grant from the Woods Institute for the Environment, which will advance the work of the team to make the plastic-to-oil conversion process more efficient.

“We need to make sure this process is something that can be done at an industrial scale to have an impact in the world, not just in our lab,” Cochran says.

Cochran explains why Stanford is a unique place to do research, and what it means for an experiment to fail.

At Stanford, four accelerators funded by philanthropy are helping to scale similarly promising efforts. Last year, a project led by Cochran on textile waste earned funding from the Stanford Sustainability Accelerator. Cochran herself is involved with the Innovative Medicines Accelerator, where she serves as faculty director of the Protein Therapeutics Initiative. Together with accelerators focused on learning and social problems, the four accelerators on campus are working to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world impact. They do so by building connections with government, businesses, and nonprofits—while bringing people from across disciplines together. 

“For some researchers, the accelerators do just that: They take work that’s happening and they speed up the process of translating academic research into practical solutions,” she says. “For others, the accelerators enable the research to happen at all, because otherwise we simply wouldn’t have the resources.”

Cochran notes that support from leadership has been key. The deans of Stanford School of Medicine, the School of Engineering, and Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability have all been enthusiastic champions for this burgeoning area of research, as has the vice provost and dean of research. In May 2023, scientists from around the campus convened at the first Synthetic Biology for Sustainability Symposium.

Every experiment is telling us something,
whether or not it’s the answer that we were initially seeking or it turns us onto a new direction and a new avenue. That’s, to me, the beauty and wonder of doing science.”
Jennifer Cochran

Of course there is no way to assure that all research projects find real-world applications. Cochran says that’s another benefit of the Stanford ecosystem–it enables researchers to take risks.

“As someone who spent several decades doing experimental research, we fail on a daily basis. Our experiments don’t work out. Our hypotheses could be wrong, there’s no shame in this,” Cochran says.

“We will take those learnings and those failures and learn from them. So every experiment is telling us something, whether or not it’s the answer that we were initially seeking or it turns us onto a new direction and a new avenue. That’s, to me, the beauty and wonder of doing science.”

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