While still an undergraduate, Li Teng led the Tsinghua University team that won the gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Design Competition (iGEM) sponsored by MIT. This experience showed him the potential of and market for synthetic biology, and influenced him to choose a career in this exciting field.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs are polyesters produced in nature by numerous microorganisms. There is a clear market demand for PHA biodegradable materials, as they can solve huge environmental problems caused by plastic pollution. But its high cost of production compared to traditional petro-based plastics has hindered the widespread use of bioplastics. Li has created a low-cost microbial synthesis process for PHA biodegradable materials, paving the way for its commercialization.
He also co-founded the synthetic biology startup Bluepha Co., Ltd. Bluepha’s unique and patented technology can produce PHA using seawater (rather than fresh water) and industrial or domestic waste containing carbon source rather than glucose from food crops.
There are still many challenges in applying synthetic biology to microbial optimization. Li and his team have built a platform that simplifies the engineering of microorganisms. They have developed new tools by learning from the biological mechanism of bacterial phage and defined unique standards for insulating DNA segments, which makes these segments fairly stable in different microorganisms.
Li and his team have also developed a new data management and automation system, Holog, which structurally stores the data of the entire research and development process.
In the future, Li and his team aim to scale up the precise design of microorganisms from laboratory level to industrial level and unleash the power of microorganisms to create manufacturing platforms for new materials, food additives, or medicine.