A US waste disposal startup is using synthetic biology to address major environmental challenges such as per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). Founded in late 2019 and based in Boston, Allonnia is committed to developing technologies that can absorb harmful chemicals in the environment and restore natural habitats.
Nicole Richards, a trained chemical engineer, became CEO of Allonnia in September 2020, after holding positions as Executive at DuPont and Global Director at Solvay. “Our vision is to use biotechnology and technical systems to break down pollutants and upcycling waste to create a waste-free, pollutant-free world,” she says Chemistry world.
Allonnia emerged from biotech giant Ginkgo Bioworks to capitalize on some interesting technological developments. The company has six full-time employees – in addition to Richards, his in-house scientific expertise includes Chief Technology Officer Kent Sorenson, a bioremediation expert with a PhD in civil and environmental engineering, and Vice President of Research Dayal Saran, a biochemist with expertise in synthetic biology.
Richards has worked in chemistry and materials science for nearly three decades, most recently in water treatment. At DuPont, she led strategy, growth, and mergers and acquisitions for its water solutions business. She was involved in DuPont’s efforts to identify technologies for cleaning PFAS, several of which have been shown to damage human and wildlife health and contaminate the environment.
Acceleration of evolution
“Most of what I know about PFAS comes from DuPont,” recalls Richards. “I was able to see where there were chemistry and materials limitations to really doing the job that is needed to clean up the environment and keep the planet healthy.”
Microorganisms and natural biology will break down and metabolize almost any pollutant over time, but this development could take hundreds of years. Allonnia’s goal is to accelerate this process and improve the developments in nature.
Allonnia will use synthetic biology developed by Ginkgo’s Ferment Consortium to biotechnologically develop microbes that can address various environmental challenges beyond PFAS, including those caused by plastics; By-products of oil and gas exploration; and metals and mining wastes. Ginkgo has a synthetic biology laboratory and foundry in Boston that performs the engineering required for Allonnia’s projects.
Allonnia targets projects that meet a large unmet need. There is currently no technology that can degrade PFASs, for example. There are ways to separate these materials, but they must then be sequestered or concentrated and landfilled or incinerated – neither of which is a good option. Since PFAS are built on extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds, they are practically indestructible. However, Allonnia is working to identify organisms and also enzymes that can break or metabolize these bonds.
Breaking bonds and upcycling metals
Allonnia is also working on ways of degradation naphthenic Acids in oil sands residues that are very harmful to water and bird life. The project is building on previous work at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada taking samples from ponds and then isolating the organisms found there to determine which of them and which can break down enzymes these impurities. “You identified natural biology, and now we’re working to improve it so we can do it efficiently for both efficiency and cost,” explains Richards.
In addition, there are projects looking for proteins that can degrade polyurethane or have an affinity for certain metals. “It binds to this metal so it can be aggregated and separated and then upgraded again,” explains Richards. This is particularly useful in cases where a particular metal needs to be selectively removed from an electronics waste stream that contains, for example, multiple metals.
Richards understands the need to contain the microbes that their business develops and prevent them from spreading and potentially causing environmental or other damage. In cases where Allonnia only does natural biology and makes microorganisms more effective, for example by adding nutrients, you shouldn’t worry like that.
However, caution should be exercised when modifying a microbe. Richards suggests that one way to prevent these modified organisms from accidentally multiplying is to tweak their biology to dormant until activated by a certain contamination. Another possibility, she says, is to build a “kill switch” into a technique so that an organism dies under certain parameters.
‘We’re not there yet, howeverOf course, we keep an eye on working with regulators, understanding the concerns, and making sure we address them early in our development process, ‘says Richards.
She hopes Allonnia’s various projects will produce a product that can be brought to market in the next year or two.