The field of synthetic biology brings what may have once been considered a science fiction plotline into the realms of reality. The coalescence of engineering and biology sees scientists utilize gene editing technologies to redesign and reprogram living cells to exhibit novel functions, offering up a host of solutions that would otherwise not be possible. With over 100 scientific articles and 5 patents, Dr Rodrigo Ledsma Amaro is an established leader in the field of synthetic biology, with a particular focus on metabolic engineering and microbial biotechnology.
‘I saw the potential of microorganisms and their versatility to be engineered to produce, in a sustainable manner, everything we need and we currently make from petrochemicals (e.g. food ingredients) or damaging agricultural practices (e.g. palm oil).
-Dr Rodrigo Ledesma Amaro
It is this work that led Rodrigo to ValleyDAO, a recent graduate of the bio.xyz program. They share a common mission; to utilize synthetic biology to create innovative approaches to environmental and societal challenges. ValleyDAO has committed £228 000 to Rodrigo’s lab at Imperial College London in exchange for a portion of the intellectual property produced, by minting their first IP-NFT. The funds will go towards Rodrigo’s work in optimizing oil extraction from oleaginous yeast. The project embodies ValleyDAO’s vision of supporting transformative scientific advancements that promise a sustainable and resilient future.
"This model is more than just about funding. It allows us to publicly present our ideas, and if they resonate with the community, secure potential funding. In essence, ValleyDAO is democratizing the way scientific research is perceived, valued, and supported."
- Dr Rodrigo Ledesma Amaro
Improved Lipid Production in Yeasts
Lipids, colloquially known as fats or oils, are used in food production, as well as the cosmetics and fuel industry. At present, we use animal- and vegetable-originated lipids in these industries - unfortunately the sourcing of these lipids is done through unsustainable practices such as palm oil harvesting. Microbes provide a favorable alternative but come at a much higher price tag.
Yarrowia lipolytica is a species of oleaginous yeast which is known for its naturally high lipid accumulation, and is the subject of Rodrigo’s work. By bioengineering these oleaginous yeasts, scientists can further increase their oil yield, providing a sustainable source of fatty acids which are essential to the food industry. As it stands, Rodrigo and his team of 30 scientists at Imperial College London have pioneered a synbio approach that causes these oils to be secreted out of the yeast cells and into the culture broth, bypassing the extraction step, which is the cause behind the high costs of microbial oil production. While this Proof-of-Concept research has established a viable pathway to improving lipid harvesting, the process itself needs improvement. This is where the funds from ValleyDAO will be essential! The team will continue their research surrounding the process, as well as investigate the possibility of a continuous fermentation process. Continual fermentation and oil collection will mean that the large vats of yeast will not need to be processed additionally in order to extract oils, creating a more energy and carbon-efficient technique. If successful, lipid harvesting costs in Yarrowia lipolytica will be reduced by up-to 70%.
Commercial Use of Microbial Oils
Edible oil practices are responsible for environmental degradation through destructive farming processes as well as energy-intensive methodology. With a growing population, the need for edible oils is only increasing, signifying that Rodrigo’s research is not only ethical but also well-placed in a growing industry. In creating methods to increase oil production and extraction in yeast, foundations are being laid for further research, with the potential to create sustainable biofuels which would help mitigate the ravaging effects of global warming and climate change.
Currently, numerous companies are working on producing food oils and fats through microbial means in a cost-efficient manner, but face issues of scalability in their manufacturing processes. As industrial biotechnology companies scale up their production, they often encounter challenges in maintaining the efficiency and viability of microorganisms used, as well as recovering the products they produce. “Throughout this project's lifetime, we want to invite these companies to the table to collaborate with us on this project,” says Albert Anis, core lead at ValleyDAO.
IP-NFT-based financing ensures that any resulting Intellectual Property (IP) from a research project is governed by the ValleyDAO community, using the DAO’s native governance token, GROW.
By doing so, ValleyDAO is not only directly involved in sourcing, reviewing, and voting on which projects should be funded but also in the licensing and governance of the resulting IP. This provides a more democratic IP-management strategy, fostering the direct participation of synthetic biology enthusiasts in the funding and translation of a research project. The impact of this novel approach extends beyond the financial realm. As Rodrigo notes, "ValleyDAO's ability to bridge the gap between science and the broader community fosters a genuine interest in, and support for, future discoveries."
IP-NFTs provide several downstream benefits for the resulting IP. First, given the record of IP ownership is on a public ledger, IP record of ownership is open, increasing the discoverability of IP. Second, given the rights of IP are held within smart contracts, researchers globally can collaborate without the need to trust one another, with rights enforcement via code. In addition, IP-NFTs enable greater transactability, with programmable sublicenses and without the need for traditional legal agreements, with terms such as royalty and milestone payments being automatable.
The IP-NFT is named SavedApe: Microbial Lipid Production with Synthetic Biology and the image represents a playful allegory of humans and orangutans - affected by deforestation due to palm oil production - collaborating to develop sustainable solutions in a lab environment, signifying the commitment to replace harmful practices with sustainable bioengineered alternatives.
A Call to Fellow SynBio Scientists
ValleyDAO has started its journey in funding world-changing science with a bang and has no intention of slowing down. They are looking to support academic research projects with up to $250k that have the potential to create a widespread climate, food, or environmental impact. If this is of interest to you, apply now by filling out this form.
If you are interested in the research outcomes of this project, reach out to ValleyDAO at email@example.com to learn more about how you can collaborate. Alternatively, join the conversation on their Twitter and Discord.
Bridging Biology and Blockchain: ValleyDAO Funds Synthetic Biology Research at Imperial College London
In an exciting first step for ValleyDAO, Dr Rodrigo Ledesma Amaro has received funding to engineer oleaginous yeast to sustainably produce oils at an industrial scale, via an IP-NFT. Rodrigo’s work lights the way for future synthetic biology researchers looking to receive funding from ValleyDAO.