Most people who know me know that I love to cook.  A while ago I learned about El Bulli, a restaurant located on Spain’s Costa Brava.  It is repeatedly voted the best and most innovative restaurant in the world and is lead by sort of a mad scientist chef named Ferran Adria who combines the deterministic knowledge of science with the art of cooking to create what has become known as Molecular Gastronomy.  He frequently uses industrial food ingredients in innovative ways to form edible art.  One of his most famous inventions is “El Bulli” style caviar.  This caviar is formed by combining a flavored liquid with Sodium Alginate.  This mixture is then dropped one drop at a time into a solution of Calcium Chloride.  When the drop hits the solution, the strong attraction of the Chloride ions pulls the Sodium ions out of the caviar liquid.  This void is then replaced by the Calcium ions which have a 2+ charge instead of a 1+ charge like the Sodium.  This increase in the charge causes an instantaneous cross linking of the Alginate polymers causing the drop to solidify into something that looks a lot like caviar; only it is flavored what ever the original liquid was. 

Here, I create a dessert Nigiri with Strawberries and caviar made from Balsamic vinegar.  First, gather the ingredients.  You will need Balsamic vinegar and some sweet Mirin for the caviar liquid, some large Strawberries, and a bowl of water with a strainer that can fit inside of it.  You will also need a “flavor injector” type food syringe which you can buy at most any well stocked cooking store.


You will also need some pretty unique ingredients which you can order from Will Powder.  They are food grade Sodium Alginate, Calcium Chloride, and Sodium Citrate.  For the caviar liquid you will want about a half cup or so of Balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of sweet Mirin to add some sweetness.  To this liquid, first add a teaspoon of Sodium Citrate.  Alginate dosen’t work optimally in acidic liquids so you add this as a buffer to get a more neutral pH.  Next, get a teaspoon or so of the Sodium Alginate and very slowly wisk it into the liquid.  You should only add a little bit at a time otherwise the powder will clump into one big ball. 


Now, prepare the Calcium Chloride solution by dissolving a heaping teaspoon of it into a pint or so of cold water.


Suck the caviar liquid up into the syringe and move over to the Calcium Chloride solution.  Position the tip of the syringe about an inch above the surface of the solution.  If it is too low, drops will not form properly and if it is too high the impact of the drop on the surface will distort the drop into a flat disk.  Drop by drop, add the liquid into the solution.  Leave for a few minutes and you will have Balsamic caviar.


Remove the caviar with the strainer and rinse gently under cold water. 

Make Nigri pieces with sushi rice and rub a little Wasabi on them (trust me, it works).


Then add some thin slices of Strawberry and top with the caviar.  Presto, an innovative, unique dessert!


I can tell right about now that you are asking “This is a blog about sustainable biotechnology.  What could dessert sushi possibly have to do with sustainable biotechnology?”  It turns out that it has a whole lot to do with it!  Immobilization of cells and enzymes in bioprocessing units is an active area of research.  This immobilization facilitates easier handling of the cells or enzymes including bioseperations.  In the latest Journal of Industrial Microbiology, a team if Chinese researchers reports on a diesel fuel desulfurization process using exactly Sodium Alginate “caviar”(1).  New regulations for diesel fuel require strict limits on the amount of sulfur compounds that can be present in the fuel.  This team used Pseudomonas delafieldii bacteria isolated from the waste pools of Chinese oil fields which eat the sulfur in diesel fuel.  They made the Alginate spheres containing this bacterium instead of Balsamic vinegar.  This allowed desulfurization of the fuel while allowing easy separation and decontamination of the fuel once the process is complete.  There are a bunch of other applications of immobilization of cells and enzymes out there which I will leave to the reader’s curiosity.


(1)   Improvement of biodesulfurization activity of alginate immobilized cells in biphasic systems. Y.G. Li, J.M. Xing, X.C. Wong, W.L. Li, H.S. Gao, H.Z. Liu, Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology, Volume 35 Number 3.



Ethical Perceptions

March 9, 2008

I recently finished up an introductory class in bioethics. This was a great class, and being able to take a break from the daily rigors of science, engineering, and business concepts and actually contemplate the ethics of those things was a welcome change of pace. It was something truly unique that I don’t think you’d get anywhere else but KGI. Our last discussion revolved around the ethics of drug pricing and what is an ethical pricing practice for life saving medicines. Several times the professor made the observation that the biopharma industry was fundamentally different in the way the public perceives it with regards to price and profit and that there were different ethical considerations with making therapeutics as compared to Dell making laptops or BMW making cars.

I got to thinking about this and after some thought; I think I don’t agree (sort of). Many students in the class have the opinion that the fundamental function of a company is to earn profit for their investors and if that is true than perhaps the answer would be yes, biopharma has different rules, but I think that’s not quite accurate. I think the real fundamental function of a company is to maximize shareholder value and that is different than monetary profit. Profits are contained within value but are not synonymous with value. Shareholder value is exactly that, what the shareholder values. Most of the time that value is dominated by the desire for more money but it contains a lot of other little things in there as well. In the case of biopharma, the fundamental definition of value is the same as Dell or BMW, it’s just that the pie chart of value is divided up a little differently since you are dealing directly with peoples well being. In this case, medicine relates to our need for self preservation at a much higher level than greed does so the pie slices are divided up differently than normal and that is where ethical issues arise. BMW still has that self preservation pie slice but it is smaller since a car’s fundamental purpose is not to save life like a medicine’s is. The funny thing is, if you really think about it, bad engineering in a car can kill just as quickly as a faulty drug can and improvements in engineering in a car can save just as many (or more) lives as a new drug can since we are exposed to cars at a much higher rate than medicines so the aggregate effect can be much larger. For some reason though, the fear of bad engineering or the heroism of good engineering in a car doesn’t play on human emotion as much we fear disease and honor medicine. I think the reason for that is the very same thing that differs driving from flying. Statistically, flying is much safer than driving, yet way more people get nervous stepping onto a 737 than traveling down the freeway at 70mph in a 2000lb steel can. Why is that? It’s the unusualness of the experience that does it. Flying is way more unusual than driving so it gets special attention in the human unconscious mind. The same thing goes for drugs. When we encounter them it’s an unusual experience in our lives and it gets special attention and that is why our ethical perceptions are different about them. In fact, that is where the root of the ethical conflict arises about drug pricing. Pilots don’t get nervous flying because it’s not unusual to them. Similarly, people who work in biotech are exposed to the issues every day and understand why the metaphorical biotech plane flies so their usual experience is at odds with the unusual experience of their customers.

So what does this have to do with sustainable biotechnology? Well, that same bioethics professor would from time to time make comments comparing making life saving drugs to making widgets. I would always think to myself, “but I want to make widgets! Am I any less noble?” And you know what; I don’t think I am any less noble than the students going into biopharma. Widgets may not be sexy, but like the car, they have a much larger aggregate effect on human life. I could have asked that class for a show of hands of how many took a medicine or used a medical device that day and gotten a few hands. Then I could have asked for a show of hands of how many students drove a car powered by fossil fuel (probably all), or how many used non-biodegradable Polyethylene terephthalate containers (most), or how many walked on carpet made from Polypropandiol terephthalate (all), or how many used bleached paper (all). The point is, being “green” or “sustainable” really boils down to a conscious attempt to recognize and evaluate the ethics of our infrastructure, those things that are by nature, usual to us and therefore not immediate to our minds like flying or medicines. It is the opportunity to think extraordinary thoughts about the most ordinary things. It is the ability to be heroic with the very mundane. I think that is pretty noble (and pretty cool).


March 5, 2008

I really like that word: “biotechnology”. Rolls of the tongue quite easily, doesn’t it? The word itself describes everything I am striving for and every reason I am at KGI (more on this later). But a lot bugs me about that word also. Namely, I don’t like its current meaning and the current connotations that come along with it in society. Right now, long time friends will ask me what I am studying in grad school and I will say “biotechnology” then I have to add an immediate, “but I am not interested in pharmaceuticals or medical devices or genetically modified crops.” Because those are exactly the things they think of now when they hear the word biotechnology. Curing disease and feeding people are noble pursuits for sure but for me the word should mean something more. I can then go on to explain that I am interested in biofuels or industrial enzymes or biodegradable plastics but even that is not the whole truth. Sure, in the short term I will probably be working for a company in one of those sectors because those are the short term applications of what truly interests me but that is far from the end of it. I can even say something more general about using the molecular machinery of life to solve the greatest challenges of sustainability in modern industrial society but even that is not the whole truth for me. Words like that make great speech writing and are good for company mission statements but when you really get down to it for me, biotechnology means a promise of something on a much more fundamental level. It’s not even an application or technical level but a philosophical or sociological one.

Think about the word, bio…technology. It’s the technology of life. And the reason I am at KGI is to become a biotechnologist, one who studies the technology of life and can apply that technology at their own discretion and with the requisite humility. I look to nature to not just teach me the way to exist, or to just survive, or to even tread lightly upon this earth but I look to nature to teach me how to live well. I look to nature to teach me the biotechnology to live bountifully and in balance with all others and to be able to create great complexity and elegance with simple basic rules. I look to nature to teach me enough about biotechnology to forget words like waste or pollution or trash for real biotechnology has no use for those words when there is a biotechnological element for every niche and every output is a nutrient fueling something else in the system. I look for nature to teach me about its systems, from my own body to the microbes under my feet to the global ecosystem as a whole, and how I can create the things I need to live a fulfilling life that fit into those systems with grace and dignity. Biotechnology to me means no less than the technology of living life well.

Back in the fall I proposed the formation of the Sustainable Biotechnology Initiative as a student group for those interested in sustainable applications of biotechnology. Well, to paraphrase Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Our nicely filling schedule here at KGI made it pretty difficult to find the time for organizing this when there is always studying of some sort to be done. As such I finally have come to the conclusion that the SBI will work best for now in blog form. I have set it up here on my personal web space and I am inviting anyone in the KGI community to participate. I figure the way I will run it is anyone in the KGI community (students, alumni, faculty, staff, etc) can become a contributor to this blog. Just email your desired user ID and password to me (cyrus_virdeh at kgi dot edu) and I will create your account. Others outside of KGI will see this blog and be able to leave comments but I am restricting contributors to KGI people for now.

I was thinking of what the first post for the SBI site should be. I can think of no words better suited to start us off than the call to arms put forth by Alex Steffen of World Changing: Don’t Just Be the Change, Mass-Produce It.