The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
When Max Schubert was a kid, he took a closer look at a leaf and was fascinated by the way the veins made up intricate geometric patterns. From then on, he was committed to a career in science and preserving the beauty of the natural world. Now, he’s staying true to that childhood dream by working to mitigate climate change using fast-growing cyanobacteria. Learn more about Max Schubert and his work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I am using a high throughput genetic engineering technique to do experiments on fast-growing cyanobacteria that can eventually be utilized to mitigate climate change. The cyanobacteria I’m looking at, Synechococcus elongatus, are the fastest growing photosynthetic bacteria on earth. To give an idea, the fastest growing plant on earth is bamboo, which can grow feet every day, increasing its body size by 5% daily. These bacteria can double themselves 16 times a day, which means they can increase their body size by 6.5 million percent daily. That has a lot of implications in terms of producing materials, food, and other items. But in order to apply these bacteria, we need to understand them. We need to answer questions like, how do they grow? Why do they grow so fast? Can we make them grow faster? How much salt can they tolerate?
I am using Retron Library Recombineering (RLR) as a quick way of understanding the genetics of how these cyanobacteria work, how they grow, and how we can manipulate them more easily. Retrons make little bits of single-stranded DNA that float around in the cell. You can use these bits of DNA to edit the genome with greater precision than with other tools. If you think of CRISPR as a “delete” tool, you can think of RLR as a “find and replace” tool. I’m focusing on using RLR to do millions of experiments at the same time, which my team described in a recent pre-print, working in E. coli. I’m excited to next adapt this technique to understand the fast-growth and genetics of cyanobacteria by performing experiments on a scale that we haven’t been able to before.
What real world problem does this solve?
These fast-growing cyanobacteria can be applied in a variety of ways to mitigate climate change and break humanity of its dirty habits. On a small consumer product scale, they could be used to create a spirulina paste that is protein-rich and has a lot of vitamins but avoids some of the climate change issues associated with food production, like fertilizers. We may also be able to turn them into something that can be used to make paper, rather than using trees.
These bacteria pull carbon dioxide out of the air and use it to build their bodies, which we could take advantage of in different ways. On a small, personal scale, cyanobacteria could be used for a new product that looks like a lava lamp, sits in your home, and sequesters carbon dioxide while making oxygen for you. People love their houseplants, and this could work thousands of times faster. On a global scale, these cyanobacteria could maybe be released into the ocean to perform carbon fixation on a larger scale. That’s a bit sci-fi, and there’s much more we have to understand about these bacteria and the ecosystems in which they live before we can propose doing that. Somewhere in the middle is the idea of making cyanobacteria to make materials from carbon dioxide, and that’s where I’m focused for now.
Recently, the Harvard Consortium for Space Genetics did a symposium about climate change with a funding award. My proposal, focused on the recent discovery that these cyanobacteria grow faster than we thought possible, became a finalist and then ended up winning the grand prize. I’m excited to apply this funding and these ideas to combat climate change.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I am inspired by the beauty of nature. I think the way biology works in the environment is incredibly complex and amazing. A lot of people consider many possible careers as they discover different interests, but that’s not how it happened for me. As a kid I just looked really closely at a leaf and saw all the intricate geometric patterns that make up the branching veins, and that was it. I wanted to know what was going on in there and how it was created. I’ve wandered around within science a bit, but essentially, I haven’t looked back since then.
What continues to motivate you?
I really like to build things, so it’s very satisfying to engineer something that’s never existed before. In science, it can be very fulfilling to see something or ask a question that that hasn’t been asked before. That’s motivating in a very different way than just observing a leaf.
What excites you most about your work?
The ability to ask new questions in new ways is very exciting. Performing millions of experiments at the same time allows us to look at a lot of new things simultaneously and ask questions that have never been asked before. I think that’s really the drive behind my science and I’m hoping to do just that, but we’re still at the very beginning of using this approach! I’m exploring an organism that is intrinsically cool and has all of these potential applications towards climate change. I’m using multiplexing to run tons of experiments simultaneously to see how those applications might work.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
I face all of the normal challenges researchers have like managing my time, finding funding, and dealing with things breaking in the lab. As a scientist, you also have to tolerate a lot of ambiguity. It’s often really unclear what direction to go in and how to get there. There is so much left to learn about these bacteria and so many potential experiments to do, it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes I find myself wishing there was a magic roadmap telling me exactly what to do, but I just have to trust my instincts.
How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
During my time in undergrad, I worked in a mushroom ecology lab. I was stomping around the forest, getting DNA samples from different mushrooms and interpreting them in the lab, trying to understand how these organisms related to other organisms in their natural environment. This was really a different kind of research than I’m doing at the Wyss. Then, before going back to graduate school, I worked at a metabolic engineering company called Amyris that made biofuels, chemical products, and medicines biosynthetically in yeast.
Those experiences have informed my whole viewpoint. Working in ecology helped me to see that nature is really complicated and there are a lot of wild things happening. At Amyris, I saw what is possible in the process of engineering a product to perform a new function. My experience working in industry made me think of science in a more practical and applied way, which is part of what drew me to George Church’s view and his way of working. That is reinforced even more by the impact-oriented culture of the Wyss.
When not at the Wyss, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to ride my bike a lot. I cycle all around Boston, even though everyone says it’s super dangerous. In my apartment, I have many potted plants that I care for including some “rescues” from craigslist “free.” I really enjoy the outdoors – aside from cycling, I also like hiking. Plus, I do play the drums, but not particularly well.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
Well, I enjoy building things and I like “gear” so maybe I would be a welder or some kind of machinist. Given that I play the drums, in idle moments I have vaguely imagined being a rock star, but I don’t think I’m cut out for it.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
Day to day, I’m thinking about the same frustrations that every other scientist is thinking about like time management, funding, technical hurdles, and anxiety around the fact that I don’t know exactly where I’m going or what the plan is to get there. The awesome part, and the part that keeps me going, is the sense that my contribution here is unique enough that if I don’t do it, nobody else will. I think that’s the coolest part about working on a cutting-edge technology.
Most of the time I don’t think about the potential to have a real and significant impact because I don’t see just one clear and obvious path to get there, but the Wyss culture of translation and entrepreneurship is really motivating. It makes me think about my project and imagine it at a larger scale. Being in this environment has changed the nature of my research goals and permeated my way of thinking about research, bringing my focus to all of the potential applications rather than just wondering how one protein sticks to another protein (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). It’s exciting that at the Wyss there are concrete paths and resources to help you figure out how to take your science out of the lab and into the real world. Having this support makes it easier to deal with a little bit of ambiguity about where to go next and how to get there.