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Chair's Distinguished Lecture

gregory stephanopoulos

Gregory Stephanopoulos

W. H. Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Engineering Microbes for the Production of Isoprenoid Compounds

Monday, May 6, 2019

Reception 3:15 – 4:00 pm
Lecture 4:00 – 5:00 pm
Physics and Astronomy Auditorium (PAA) A114


Gregory Stephanopoulos is the W. H. Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at MIT. He earned his chemical engineering doctorate at the University of Minnesota, and later taught at Caltech before joining MIT in 1985. Stephanopoulos is regarded as a pioneer in the field of metabolic engineering, the engineering of microbes to convert them into factories that produce fuels and chemicals. He co-authored the first textbook on the subject, and his research has yielded influential contributions to microbial biofuels production. The holder of 50 patents, Stephanopoulos co-founded the startup Manus Bio in 2011. The company has developed a process to engineer microbes with bio-inspired metabolic pathways, which they use to produce rare and expensive ingredients for a range of consumer products at commercially viable scales. It recently acquired the former NutraSweet plant in Augusta, Ga., to make its products.

Stephanopoulos is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of AAAS and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and a founding fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. In 2016, he served as president of AIChE. He is editor-in-chief of two academic journals and serves on the advisory boards of five chemical engineering departments. Stephanopoulos has co-authored more than 440 publications, supervised 130 doctoral and postdoctoral students, and received more than 25 national awards for his work.


Isoprenoids are a large class of mainly plant-derived natural compounds. Also known as terpenoids, they comprise more than 55,000 compounds and constitute one of the largest classes of metabolites in nature. Their importance stems from their diverse uses in fields such as nutrition and medicine. Some compounds, such as taxol and artemisinin, are currently used as pharmaceuticals for the treatment of cancer and malaria, respectively, and numerous other applications are under investigation.

Despite strong interest in these compounds, current production methods rely upon extraction from plant sources, which is inefficient, unreliable and costly. As a result, effective drugs, like the antimalarial artemisinin, are too costly to be deployed at scale in developing countries. In recent years, microbial metabolic engineering has made great advances in facilitating the biosynthesis of isoprenoids. In this talk I will review our efforts during the past decade to enhance the compounds’ synthesis in microbes and to expand the range of products so synthesized. These approaches include classic metabolic engineering, mixed cultures, a combination of metabolic and protein engineering, and a novel pathway that bypasses the traditional methylerythritol (MEP) and mevalonate pathways to greatly benefit overall productivity and process versatility.