Dr. Anthony Vecchiarelli is an Assistant Professor and his lab tackles mechanisms of sub-cellular organization using interdisciplinary approaches with a strong emphasis on cell-free reconstitution and imaging techniques.
Q: What does your research currently focus on?
A: Plants are responsible for half of global carbon fixation. Bacteria are the unsung heroes of the other half. My lab is interested in an organelle responsible for the carbon-fixing activity of bacteria called the Carboxysome. Carboxysomes use a protein shell that encapsulates the most abundant enzyme on the planet called RuBisCO. The shell traps CO2 and the RuBisCO enzyme, creating a highly efficient carbon-fixation reaction compared to plants. Given the Carboxysome’s central role in the global carbon cycle, these carbon-fixing organelles are of significant ecological and biotechnological interest, particularly now given our climate crisis. Despite their importance, little is known about how Carboxysomes form or how they are spatially regulated in bacterial cells to maintain proper function. Our lab aims to determine the mechanisms underlying the assembly and spatial regulation of Carboxysomes in bacteria. Accomplishing this aim will provide a foundation for assembling and organizing Carboxysomes in heterologous host cells. For example, Carboxysomes can be assembled and maintained in industrial microbes to scale-up carbon-fixation. Also, plant chloroplasts are currently being engineered to express Carboxysomes to turbo-charge their photosynthetic efficiency for higher-yielding and faster-growing crops.
Q: What role do you think carbon technology or CO2-based products play in climate mitigation policies?
A: Carbon technology or CO2-based products are as central to climate mitigation policies as CO2 emitting technologies were to getting us in this mess. It is well known, and for some time now, that Carbon Dioxide is a key greenhouse gas driving global climate change, and humans are responsible for this catastrophe. It wasn’t a single CO2 emitting activity that got us here. In a similar vein, I believe, there isn’t a stand-alone carbon technology or CO2-based product that has shown the scalability and cost effectiveness needed for it to be considered the “silver bullet” in halting our climate crisis. Many proposals potentially risk huge damage to the environment themselves or are likely to be very costly. To put it succinctly, we cannot put all our eggs in one basket. What attracted me to the Global CO2 Initiative is its holistic approach – a diverse team of scientists, industry leaders, and policy experts uniting their unique skillsets across multiple fields to fix a global crisis. Everyone must be involved, using his or her specific talents and ways of thinking, in combating this issue.
Q: What real world application or sector(s) do you see your research or tech having the most impact on?
A: From an application standpoint, our research aids in the development of biologically inspired methods for carbon-fixation and sequestration, via the use of carboxysomes. The use of carboxysomes for turbocharging the photosynthetic efficiency of crops would have a significant impact on agriculture. However, I can see the use of carboxysomes in a number of biotechnological sectors interested in CO2 remediation through biologically-inspired processes.
Q: How do students react to your work or this climate mitigation approach in general?
A: I discuss carbon-fixing bacteria in all courses I teach. But I feel that as teachers we have to be careful about falling into hitting students over the head with the now endless examples of how climate change will end civilization as we know it. What’s harder, but essential, are the stories of hope. Many of those stories of hope come from science. Students find cyanobacteria and carboxysomes interesting for the reasons mentions above, but what really gets them fired up is providing tangible evidence supporting effective methods of climate change mitigation. Actionable ideas lead to hope, hope leads to passion, passion leads to harder work and better actionable ideas. It’s a beautiful vicious cycle, and when I see it coming from my students, I consider that to be one of my most ‘scalable’ methods for combating climate change.
Q: What advice do you have for technologists or entrepreneurs starting off in this field?
A: I’ve run my lab for two years now and we are still largely focused on the fundamental mechanisms associated with the assembly and organization of carboxysomes. We recognize their biotechnological potential in combating climate change, and this is why we are excited to be a part of the Global CO2 Initiative. As a result, I think I’m more in a position of taking advice from technologists or entrepreneurs as opposed to offering it!