Biology for Engineers, Engineering for Biologists
Mary Lidstrom may be a biologist by training, but she is a systems
engineer by inclination.
It was a lesson she learned about herself more than 20 years ago
while trying to bring a more quantitative approach to her science. She
started working with engineers and discovered she really enjoyed an
engineering approach to understanding complex biological systems.
"It became clear to me that I needed to move into an engineering
program and have engineering students," she says. "So I teach
microbiology to engineers. They want to learn biology so they can work
at this biology/engineering interface."
As an HHMI Professor, her goal is to further integrate life sciences
into the engineering program, to teach design and function as it
relates to biology, expanding on an existing program in the school.
"We actually teach biology to engineers differently than it is
taught to biologists," says Lidstrom, a professor of chemical
engineering and microbiology, and associate dean for new initiatives in
engineering at the University of Washington. "It's a function-based
approach with the idea of nature as the designer, and evolution as the
design tool. That's real engineering. And that's the way we feel
biology should be taught—start with how it works, then talk about
The practical application includes metabolic engineering, "to take
bacteria, for example, and use them as factories to make products," or
creating so-called "smart materials" that are biologically based and
take their cue from nature. If scientists can understand how nature
does it, they may be able to figure out how to do it on their own.
Examples include human skin, which has a remarkable ability to
repair itself, and the shell of the abalone, "which is made up of
minerals and proteins, and is several times stronger than it should be,
based on its components," she says.
Lidstrom, who serves on the editorial board of the Journal of
Bacteriology, focuses her own research on molecular and metabolic
manipulations of methylotrophic bacteria, which are capable of growth
on methane, methanol, and methylated amines.
The long-term goal of her research is to develop environmentally
sound and economically viable alternatives to current chemical
production and cleanup strategies.