Esteban Marcellin: Re-engineering the world, naturally

26 September 2022
What happens when a chemical engineer becomes disillusioned with how we’re using chemicals? If you’re Dr Esteban Marcellin Saldana, you set about changing the game.
Esteban is a scholar whose academic journey has spanned three continents. The better part of the past decade has put him at The University of Queensland, where he heads up his own research group at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).
Each day Esteban strives to better understand biological cells and how they can enhance the production of fuels, chemicals and biopharmaceuticals.
Ultimately, his work is to reshape our economy and our lives so we may ease the burden we place on the planet.

Here, Esteban tells us about the dormant potential of the global bioeconomy, his unorthodox path to the labs at The University of Queensland, and the extremely human trait we must abandon if we want a sustainable future.
Below, we chat to Esteban about his work and his ideas for the future.
Esteban, you’re a man with a lot on the go. For those who don’t know you can you please give us a crash course?
Absolutely. I would say the work we do in the group, comes under systems and synthetic biology. It sounds complex, but really, we’re looking at how we can use biology to make more sustainable materials, fuels, medicines, and foods. 
Esteban Marcellin's group focuses on systems and synthetic biology, or how we can use biology to make more sustainable materials, fuels, medicines, and foods. 
A lot of this is taking products traditionally derived from fossil fuels and instead making them biologically, or in a way that is better for the planet.
Can you give us an example of what you and your team are working on?
Okay so one of our major projects is based around carbon recycling. We are using gas fermentation to consume greenhouse gases as feedstock, so gases can be converted into valuable chemicals and fuels. The hope is that this technology will lessen our dependence on finite fossil fuel resources, and improve sustainability for the chemical industry.
I would say a lot of the things we do via our Integrated Design Environment for Advanced biomanufacturing (IDEA Bio) facility involves actively working with companies like Lanzatech, Amyris, All G, Servatus, Bondi, Zoetis, Dow, CSL, and Patheon Thermo Fisher to look for sustainable solutions and increase the production scope of the advanced biomanufacturing sector.
Other things we’ve worked on include producing flavours and fragrances from CO2 We do that by engineering organisms to replicate the biosynthesis of natural products in cyanobacteria to produce renewable versions of rare active ingredients for cosmetics, fragrances, pigments, medicines and food supplements.
Let’s backtrack a little. How does a Mexican-born, French-schooled employee of a US chemical company come to be working at the AIBN in Queensland?
Yes it has been a journey. So I am originally from Mexico City, I did my high school in France, and I went back to Mexico for my undergrad as a chemical engineer. I suppose though I was never very happy with the way the chemical industry worked, and how we made chemicals. I always thought there must be a better way of making what we were making.
So that encouraged me to look for other alternatives. At the time, I ran across biological systems that could produce chemicals and fuels in a more sustainable way. So I looked for opportunities to do a PhD in this area and came to Australia to do my PhD at The University of Queensland in bioengineering.
After that I moved to Indianapolis in the US to work for a chemical company to establish a systems and synthetic biology platform which was very, successful. Again though, I always though there could be better ways of doing things.
So my wife and I looked at coming back to Australia, and we relocated in 2013. That’s when I started establishing an independent group at AIBN.
You’ve been at AIBN the better part of 10 years now. I’m guessing your work, and the appetite for synthetic biology, has evolved somewhat?
To start with, metabolic engineering is the term we used when referring to using biological systems for manufacturing. Then systems biology became a bit more mainstream. And it sells well so that's what we're using. I guess metabolic engineering is part of systems biology, but the key difference is that in synthetic biology we can use automation and do a lot more and at a lot faster than we could.
When I started we would knock out or overexpress a single gene and that would take the time of a whole PhD. Now we can do it in a week. Technological change means we can do things 1000 times faster at 1000 times the volume. So, we can reach goals much faster than we could before.
You wear a number of other hats too – can you talk me through what else you’re involved with?
I’m the co-director of Bioplatforms Australia’s Queensland nodes of Metabolomics and Proteomics Australia (Q-MAP), the UQ Node Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, and co-node leader of the new NCRIS Synbio facility that is being established at UQ called IDEA Bio.
The AIBN is also involved in the ARC research Hub for carbon Utilisation and Recycling, which will develop technology to harvest CO2 emissions and create pathways to recycle CO2 into new valuable products.
You mentioned before that you weren’t too happy with the way humanity is producing and using chemicals. What is your main concern here? Is it the environment? A social obligation to do things a better way?
It’s definitely the environment. I mean, 20 years ago it wasn't a very noticeable way of thinking. It wasn't like today where the environment and climate change is a lot more at the front of people’s decision making.
It is frustrating because we are still doing things, still using fuels and chemicals like we did 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40… 50 years ago. The technology is there to do things differently, but it's not fully utilised.
Why do you think we’re hesitant to make the necessary changes?
As humans, we don't really like to compromise anything. For example, if you take steps to change how you use fuels and chemicals at home, but your neighbour is not doing it, then you are like, “why should I then? It's not making a difference.” So you go back to what you were doing.
I mean, just now with the Covid-19 pandemic … it showed exactly that. It was an opportunity to restart, to do things better. But instead, we've gone back to where we were. Nothing has changed in terms of environmental concerns from where we were three years ago, while there was a big opportunity to rethink things.
If we were to get everything right, if we were to start really accelerating this kind of concern for the environment, what would that look like?
Essentially, we can make our everyday chemicals sustainably, but it costs more money. We could speed up the uptake of electric cars, but that costs more money. Not everyone can afford an electric car, I understand that. But even if you own a petrol car, we could be using more sustainable fuels. But it would probably mean we would need to pay $2.50 per litre instead of $1.50. And we're not prepared to do that.
If there were government incentives to use sustainable fuels, with time, the technology would progress enough so that the price would be more comparable to now. But it is difficult to put things like this in place, it is very unpopular.
I guess the biggest positive is that we have all the technology and knowledge necessary to produce everything sustainably. We can make sustainable food, more sustainable materials and medicines. That’s one thing to remember. We can do all this stuff. And we can implement it more widely if we really want to. It’s just a matter of people getting to that point where they realise it is absolutely necessary right now.
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