Humans at Bolt – Dr. Edyta Szewczyk, Senior Scientist in Biology
Edyta is a fungal geneticist and a strain engineer at Bolt. She works with the organism that Bolt uses as the foundation for Mylo™, and creates a genetic map that tells us what gene corresponds to what characteristic of the fungus. On many levels, she is the one who is most familiar with the organism, having dissected and analyzed it down to a microscopic and genetic level.
Edyta’s fascination and love for fungi started early. As a child growing up in Poland, she saw the bioluminescent Honey Mushroom growing on a tree in her parents’ backyard, and she never looked back.
“Mushrooms were always a giant part of my life – harvesting mushrooms, foraging from my childhood. I learned how to recognize the edible and non-edible mushrooms early on, and I always knew there’s something special about mushrooms. My brother became an astronomer, and my family jokes that he looks at the stars through a telescope, and I look at microorganisms through a microscope.”
How did you get started in genetics?
“I always wanted to study botany, because I was fascinated with plants. I had a natural ability to recognize species, even from ancient drawings, I would recognize the plant and remember its Latin name. Every time I moved to a different country, I would learn all about the local plants. Eventually, I became interested in lichens – they are a symbiosis between plants and fungi. They were very mysterious, not much was known, and people would constantly change theories about it.
In the fourth year of high school, genetics caught my attention because it was very scientific. To me, zoology, botany, and physiology, felt very like descriptive sciences. Genetics, on the other side, is very strict. There is no argument of whether it’s true or not, you can just prove it. So I decided to study genetics.
One of the coolest parts about fungi is that they are surprisingly similar to animals, and humans even. So much so that some of the pathways for making certain molecules are similar in fungi and animals. Many fungi make natural molecules that can affect human physiology, including immune modulators, psychoactive compounds, and antibiotics. It is hypothesized that the neuro-active ones evolved to increase the dispersal of spores by attracting mammals to eat the mushroom. An example is a molecule called anandamide that is produced by truffles. This molecule has natural mood-enhancing activity because it is compatible with the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, the same receptors that are responsible for the effect of THC derived from marijuana plants. Just like with THC, anandamide triggers the release of mood-enhancing chemicals in humans, but the amounts are so tiny that humans don’t feel its effects after eating truffles.”
How would you explain fungal genetics to somebody with no experience in biology?
“Every organism, including fungi, contains genetic code, which is a template for every aspect of the organism’s life. A fungal geneticist can decipher that code, see what part of the template corresponds to what function. They can also compare it to other similar organisms and find similarities and differences. Then, they go on to see if they can modify the genetic code to alter the function of the organism.
Like many scientists, I started in academia, but the type of work I do evolved as I moved into the industry. When I was in academia, a fungal geneticist was somebody who analyzed genetic networks using fungi as model organisms. As I switched to the industry, my job became more about the functional use of genetics, not just to study and observe and modify to look for some effect. I can now engineer the fungus to delete a gene (if you don’t want the product of that gene), or redirect a pathway, or introduce a gene (if you want the fungus to produce another product). So, I would say that now I am more of a fungal genetic engineer.”
What made you want to join Bolt?
“I’ve heard about Bolt before because of its spider silk, and that it was starting to work on Mylo™. I always wanted to see and feel the new Mylo™ material. When I touched it, it felt so good. The challenge of making something tangible that was so appealing to me. Normally companies make a chemical or something that you purify away from the fungus, and at Bolt I got to actually touch and work with the organism. It was also the challenge of working on a fungus versus bacteria or yeast. A fungus is always a challenge – it has a character and it stands up to you.”
To learn more about the team behind Mylo™, stay tuned for our next update with the product development team!