The family of isoprenoids includes chemicals called terpenoids, which give plants their aroma and which also include taxol from the Pacific yew tree, and carotenoids, such as the compounds that give plants their color. Aside from their importance in flavorings, colorings and perfumes, isoprenoids from organisms as diverse as coral and fungi are being identified as potential drugs.
"The ability to produce amorphadiene in a simple organism like E. coli opens up a whole realm of possible molecular backbones that can later be functionalized to make drugs," Keasling said.
Keasling's lab concentrates on metabolic engineering of microbes to do complex chemical syntheses to replace current methods that are expensive, polluting and wasteful of resources.
"Enzymes are very specific catalysts that can accomplish in far fewer steps what takes us many complex steps in the laboratory," Keasling said. "We are trying to put enzymes inside cells to create a biosynthetic cascade using the cell's metabolites as starting material, to provide essentially complete molecules in an aqueous environment using no toxic reagents. We're taking an organism, co-opting its metabolism, and using it for our benefit now."
"This is just a start," he emphasized. "I really want to push the limits of the organism."