by John Warner, Zymergen Distinguished Research Fellow
Non-covalent derivatization isn’t exactly something you hear in day-to-day conversation, even among scientists. Today — almost 30 years after I first used the term to describe an alternative to traditional synthesis practices at the Polaroid Corporation — it remains equal parts tongue twister and brain twister. Not because it’s necessarily difficult, but because it’s a departure from the traditional high-temperature, high-pressure synthetic techniques that most chemists are taught in school. Said differently, it requires approaching the problem an entirely new way, unlearning what many of us were taught, and ‘doing’ chemistry in an unnatural way. The irony of course, is that it’s literally the most natural way. You ask the molecules what they want to be rather than telling them what to do.
I’ve been questioning some of the fundamental assumptions about the ways we ‘do’ chemistry for most of my career. ‘How do we make chemistry and technology work more in harmony with natural processes? How do we manufacture the way nature does? Why are we not taught what makes molecules toxic when we are in school?’ As I’ve tried to answer these questions, I’ve met a lot of amazing people, formed many collaborations, and we have wound up inventing a lot of things along the way. Hundreds of patents and inventions later, I have had the fortune of watching an ever-growing network of people and organizations that chose not to fight nature, but to collaborate and learn from it. When I received the Perkin Medal in 2014, I felt that it was not a singular recognition of just me, but recognition of the many people expanding the frontiers of noncovalent derivatization and green chemistry. It’s also how I came to meet the Zymergen team.
I have encountered loads of companies that are trying to do the right thing — moving earnestly toward a more sustainable future. But so often, the pace of adoption and change is slow. This is where Zymergen actually stands out. Speed. A company built natively around the very same concepts I’ve talked about for years — unlocking the secrets of the powerful manufacturing systems embedded in the natural world. The difference of course, is the introduction of powerful tools and technologies that move away from the same old approach of increasing temperature and pressure. Instead, speed is achieved by helping the natural manufacturing systems move faster than ever before. Compressing millions of years of evolutionary development into weeks or months. Going back to nature with reverence and curiosity, asking not telling, and ultimately achieving what no other company before has been able to do.
With Zymergen, I see an incredible opportunity to take the next logical step from invention to productization. Non-covalent derivatization is a fundamental design rule in nature, not the exception. For me, this means moving from what started as something of a rebel mechanism to change the practice of chemistry, more directly into the mainstream of material and product development. Not making sustainable things that are financially out of reach for regular consumers. Zymergen was founded on the belief that we can partner with nature to create better things a better way. I share that belief and am excited to advance our cause — and products — together.