Berry also experimented with ways to reversibly attach polymers to sugar molecules and came up with a way to kill cancer cells by binding polymers to heparin, the well-known blood thinner. Berry’s polymer packaging makes cancer cells absorb heparin more quickly; once inside the cells, the heparin disrupts biochemical pathways, ultimately leading to cell death. The technology garnered the attention of Momenta Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company in Cambridge, MA; Berry garnered another publication, and another patent application.
“What makes David unusual is that there’s nothing that’s going to stop him,” says Robert Langer, a chemical engineer at MIT in whose lab Berry studied. “He has no fear. He’s willing to tackle any idea, and he has lots of ideas. The breadth of his scientific curiosity and his belief in himself are pretty remarkable for somebody his age.”
In 2004, Berry had no greater ambition than to run an academic lab, develop new technologies, and hustle them out into the commercial world. But then, in 2005, Flagship Ventures sought his input on a life science company it was starting. By the end of the year, that consulting job had evolved into an invitation to join the firm as a principal. In Flagship’s emphasis on developing the core concepts for new companies in-house, Berry saw an irresistible opportunity to jump-start innovation by funding it at its earliest stages. Although Flagship’s previous startups tended to focus on traditional life sciences like genomics, the company was increasingly interested in taking biology in a new direction: energy. “Back in 2005,” Berry recalls, “we were saying, ‘What would be interesting in the fuel space?’” The project ended up in Berry’s hands.
Berry’s goal was nothing less than “to develop a novel and far-reaching solution to the energy problem.” In collaboration with genomics researcher George Church of Harvard Medical School and plant biologist Chris Somerville of Stanford University, Berry and his Flagship colleagues set out to do something that had never been attempted commercially: using the tools of synthetic biology to make microörganisms that produce something like petroleum. Berry assumed responsibility for proving that the infant company, dubbed LS9, could produce a biofuel that was renewable, better than corn-derived ethanol, and cost-competitive with fossil-based fuels.
Ethanol is the most common biofuel, but many observers, including Berry, have reservations about corn-based ethanol as a long-term solution to the fuel crisis. Ethanol has only about two-thirds as much intrinsic energy as petroleum, and producing it requires considerable agricultural resources.
Berry took the lead in designing a system that allowed LS9 researchers to alter the metabolic machinery of microörganisms, turning them into living hydrocarbon refineries. He began with biochemical pathways that microbes use to convert glucose into energy-storing molecules called fatty acids. Working with LS9 scientists, he then plucked genes from various other organisms to create a system of metabolic modules that can be inserted into microbes; in different combinations, these modules induce the microbes to produce what are, for all practical purposes, the equivalents of crude oil, diesel, gasoline, or hydrocarbon-based industrial chemicals.