Using synthetic biology to harness rare earth elements domestically

Yongqin Jiao

Rare earth elements (REE) help power the electronics we use every day: smart phones, televisions, computers, cars, and more. REE are a small subset of 16 elements on the periodic table but have an outsized impact on high-technology and clean-energy applications. Harnessing REE’s power effectively, safely, and responsively supports technological progress and the Laboratory’s mission of advancing national security.

REE don’t occur individually in nature but are found collectively in various minerals in the Earth's crust. Traditional methods of mining and refining REE can result in unintended consequences, including increased human exposure to radioactivity and geopolitical tensions over a supply chain frequently controlled by potential adversaries. By developing bioengineered REE-converting bacteria and biomolecules, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have developed platform biotechnologies for sustainable and cost-effective REE separation and purification. Crucially, establishing a domestic REE supply will help meet the needs of important DOE and DOD missions.

Dr. Yongqin Jiao has been studying microbe-mineral interactions throughout her career. As Principal Investigator of DOE-funded projects on REE biomining and a recipient of the DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program award on uranium bioremediation, she understands the multifaceted benefits of synthetic biology and microbial systems. “Tremendous advances in synthetic biology coupled with rare earth element (REE)-specific microbial metabolisms offers new ways to develop REE biomining processes that is much more effective and sustainable even in a state like CA,” says Jiao.

Jiao explains, “We leverage the diversity, specificity, and customizability of microorganisms and biomolecules to enable new biomining methods for the separation, purification, and conversion of REEs into manufacturing-ready forms. Our goal is to provide a viable path to economic and sustainable REE recovery from low-grade sources that were deemed ‘unworthy’ to mine with traditional technologies, and ultimately lessen U.S. dependence on imports for these critical metals.”

After completing her PhD in geobiology at Caltech. Yongqin was drawn to LLNL through a conference presentation given by Dr. Michael Thelen, a now-retired LLNL senior staff scientist. Yongqin asked an insightful question during the Q&A section of his presentation, and Michael sought her out during a break period to explain the work he was overseeing at LLNL. Yongqin joined Dr. Thelen’s postdoc group shortly after their first meeting, diving more deeply into microbial community research.

Yongqin was further motivated to join an organization that encourages individuals to contribute to a team instead of focusing on individual performance. “What’s even more valuable is the Lab’s growth mindset as life-long learners, and people are respectful and appreciative of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Environmental sustainability with economic prosperity and equality for everyone are my guiding values and drivers for my research,” says Jiao.

Looking to the future, it’s clear that REE will continue to drive the technology we use daily. Figuring out how to access REEs safely and efficiently with a reliable domestic supply chain is crucial. “Collectively, the scientific community needs better communication in gaining public trust on the utility, safety, and benefit of engineered biosystems, and to push forward the innovation and advancement of synthetic biotechnologies.”

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Using synthetic biology to harness rare earth elements domestically