Walden Li, PhD student, discusses the potential of synthetic bioengineering to help the environment

4/22/2020 Huan Song

Written by Huan Song

Walden Li, Bioengineering Ph.D. student working under Assistant Professor Paul Jensen, has had a life-long fascination in the environment. Li grew up in a village in China where he spent a lot of time in nature. "I did a lot of farming as a boy and played in the mountains, lakes and creeks," said Li. He also enjoyed learning about the natural world through books and TV. "All of these things set a stage for me to have a close relationship with nature."

As a first-year middle school student, Li saw a documentary on climate change that solidified his academic interest. Li said, "Climate change was such a big problem in the world with very few people who were willing to take up that responsibility." At that age, he decided he needs to be a part of the solution.

During his undergraduate education at Zhejiang University, Li chose to major in biological sciences in order to study microbes. "I felt that microbes held a lot of potential because we know so little about them and they are capable of so much."

During his search for more efficient ways to leverage this potential, Li discovered his passion for metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, which redesigns microbes to produce chemicals, drugs or biofuels. He hopes that the bioproduction and bioprocessing industry, with its greener source, process and products, can serve as a replacement for fossil fuel-based industries.

"In the Jensen lab, I'm learning how to work with microbes, how to understand their metabolism and how to change them," said Li. The Jensen lab specifically works with bacteria that cause cavities and tooth decay in humans. Students are also building computational models to better understand how different bacteria interact with each other at a systems level. "I’m preparing myself with the important techniques that would later become really valuable when I engineer microbial metabolism," said Li.

A challenge in this field is to increase the efficiency of bioproduction so it can compete in the marketplace against chemical production. Li believes that research in metabolomics, the large-scale study of small molecules, and metabolic modeling could help bioproduction achieve higher scale.

There are many engineers across disciplines tackling environmental challenges. Research in one field often has broader implications and multidisciplinary applications.

"As an example, there is a lot of pollution coming from the pharmaceutical industry," said Li. "Bioengineers these days are coming up with novel therapies like gene therapy and immunotherapy which are greener alternatives to chemical medicines."

When Li is not in the lab, he can often be found fishing. "Fishermen know how valuable and vulnerable the environment is because we are in close contact with nature." His favorite fishing spot is Lake Shelbyville in central Illinois.

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This story was published April 22, 2020.