Mar 17, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Cleaning pollution the synthetic biology way

A utility barge sits in a tailing pond at the Syncrude open pit oil excavation mine in Fort McMurray
A utility barge on an oil sands tailing pond in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/ Dagens Naringsliv/Corbis via Getty Images

A startup that uses synthetic biology to clean up pollution is taking on a $20 million funding round, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Bioremediation offers the possibility of cleaning some of the world's most polluted sites using the power of nature — with a little human engineering.

What's happening: Allonnia, a startup spun off from the synthetic biology leader Ginkgo Bioworks, will be announcing today a $20 million investment from the cleantech fund Evok Innovations.

  • As part of the investment — which brings Allonnia's total financing to $60 million since it's founding last October — Allonnia will acquire the assets of Metabolik Technologies, an Evok portfolio company that uses bioremediation on pollutants created during the development of oil sands.

What they're saying: "The investment is a great fit for Allonnia because we're working on very similar areas in terms of our mission on bioremediation," says Nicole Richards, Allonnia's CEO. "As we learn to do this for one case" — oil sands pollution — "we can begin to apply it to others."

How it works: Bioremediation involves harnessing naturally-occurring microbes to break down difficult-to-treat pollutants in the environment.

  • Allonnia works to identify microbes capable of breaking down waste, then uses the tools of synthetic biology to amplify their abilities both to clean up toxic pollution and bind to valuable materials in the waste stream for reuse.
  • "If designed properly, these microbes will have an affinity towards the contaminants and metabolize them as part of their system," says Richards.

Context: Synthetic biology-influenced bioremediation could be particularly useful for the kind of concentrated, hard-to-treat waste created during mining and energy projects, including Canada's oil sands developments.

"Bioremediation is almost the most natural way to use synthetic biology, because the biology already exists that does the work right. We're just taking what's there and making it more efficient."
— Nicole Richards, Allonnia

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