Christian Boehm talks about his path to a leading role in Germany's search for a sustainable bioeconomy
I believe that a green recovery from this crisis is possible, and it may just decrease the risk of something similar happening again.Christian Boehm
Christian Boehm  has had a busy year. In 2019 he joined Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research to help build a sustainable bioeconomy based on renewable resources and biotechnology, moving from academia to government.
However, in March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic took a foothold in Europe, he was assigned to a new Division where responsibilities were broadened substantially. They now embraced “new methods in life sciences”, covering green and marine biotechnology as well as drug and vaccine development and research on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Thematically it is one of the most interdisciplinary Divisions in the Ministry, something Christian, now it’s Deputy Head, welcomes. “Drugs and vaccines are essential for tackling Covid-19, yet to increase our resilience to future pandemics we should not stop there. We also need to reconsider our interactions with ecosystems and the biological diversity they contain. A silo mentality will neither resolve the global challenges of human health nor those of environmental degradation,” he says.
While the Division has mostly been in the spotlight for its efforts regarding Covid-19 vaccine development, Christian’s primary focus remains on green and marine biotechnologies and biodiversity.
His fascination with the latter dates back to his childhood.
Christian was born in Tirschenreuth, a rural town in Bavaria and until the age of seven he was living there with his parents and next to his grandparents and uncle’s family, including a younger cousin whom he says has been like a sister to him. He spent a fair amount of his time there exploring the woods, developing a close connection with and fascination for nature. “I became increasingly curious about how it all works”, he says.
His parents later moved to Freising, an old town to the north of Munich. His favourite school subjects at secondary school were the natural sciences and he excelled at those. Deciding what he wanted to do after school was not difficult. Christian wanted to understand how life works at a molecular scale and then apply this knowledge to the nature conservation. He chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the nearby Technical University of Munich which is regarded as the best chemistry school in the country.
When Christian started his degree in 2007 the Fourth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] had just been published a few months previously and it filled him with an increasing sense of urgency. “I had a fundamental awareness of the detrimental consequences of climate change, but the report underlined that there was no time to lose and I thus focused my studies on biotechnologies with a potential for application in sustainability,” he says.
From there on, Christian has retained a keen interest in how molecular biology could be utilised to address the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss through green biotechnology. Even in those early days of his academic journey, he had one foot in policy and on-the-ground change: during his undergraduate studies he became involved in the young national think tank of the Club of Rome and co-organised social media campaigns raising awareness for sustainable lifestyles.
In his first undergraduate year he became fascinated by synthetic biology, an emerging discipline which had not received a lot of attention in Germany at the time. He was drawn by the way it harnessed computer science and engineering principles while being focused on application. During his second undergraduate year, he therefore did a research internship at MIT working on protein engineering. “That bolstered my fascination with synthetic biology,” he said. His undergraduate thesis at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry then focused on engineering adhesive proteins which could be used in bone repair and dentistry.
Christian says that, while this protein engineering work was focused on medical applications, he was already thinking of it as a way to acquire the toolset he would need to apply synthetic biology to sustainability issues.
Between his undergraduate and master’s studies Christian joined one of the world’s leading laboratories in synthetic biology at Harvard University for a six-month research internship. It was the first time he was able to explore the application of synthetic biology to sustainability issues, specifically the microbial production of biofuels. Given at the time there was no postgraduate degree programme in Germany with a focus on synthetic biology, Christian chose to pursue a master’s degree in systems and synthetic biology at Imperial College in London, where he designed a prototype microreactor for sustainable production of chemicals.
During his time at Imperial, Christian was also a tutor on the Imperial Horizons pilot programme, teaching a course on climate change, volunteered for the Desertec Foundation and became an expert reviewer for the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC.
Finishing his studies at Imperial, Christian realised it might be worthwhile to further expand his skills in computational modelling for his future synthetic biology research so he pursued a second master’s degree in scientific computing at the University of Cambridge . He found this somewhat challenging as he had limited previous knowledge of Computer Science and, being the only biologist on the course, had some catching up to do.
For his PhD he applied for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to join Professor Jim Haseloff’s laboratory in the Department of Plant Sciences which had just won a big grant to establish a research centre for synthetic biology in plants. “It seemed the obvious fit for me,” says Christian.
The lab is highly interdisciplinary and allowed him to weave together the different wet lab and computational elements of his education. For his PhD he focused on engineering multi-cellular biological systems for sustainability applications. Starting with the Marchantia, a basal lineage of land plants, as a simple testbed he aimed to create a way of engineering plants’ genetic functionality. This was so they could in the future, for instance, fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the need for the energy-intensive process of nitrogen fertiliser production. “Fertiliser production consumes more than one percent of the world’s total energy every year,” says Christian.
The idea was to later move from Marchantia to crop plants of economic relevance. There were two main approaches to the problem: the first was about using nitrogen-fixing bacteria and establishing a synthetic symbiosis with the roots of plants; and the second, which Christian worked towards, involved genetically engineering chloroplasts [the sites of photosynthesis] in plants, based on the engineering concept of logic gates that control when and in what context certain functions are switched on. During his PhD research Christian also collaborated with a colleague to demonstrate how such a synthetic logic gate could shape multicellular patterning in microbial consortia.
He also had plans to contribute to his field beyond the lab bench. During the first year of his PhD research, Christian founded the European Synthetic Biology Society (EUSynBioS) which aims to build a community of young synthetic biology researchers across Europe. He says that this initiative was in large part inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of fellow Gates Cambridge Scholars who put an emphasis on improving the lives of others. Christian had previously volunteered as the student US-EU liaison of SynBERC in order to build better transatlantic connections between young synthetic biologists in the US and those in Europe. He found this challenging, given the young US community was much more established at the time and the one in Europe was highly fragmented.
“I never expected that a PhD student could from scratch build a community of hundreds of young researchers across 15 countries in one year and that it would keep growing to this day,” he says. “EUSynBioS is now registered as a non-profit organisation in Paris, and I’m really happy to see that. It wouldn’t have happened without the inspiration from Gates Cambridge,” he adds.
Gates Cambridge was not his only community at Cambridge – Christian had his college and department and he was also in the Cambridge University Dancesport Team which won the national university dancesport circuit and the Varsity match against Oxford, but he says Gates Cambridge weaved everything together. “The community aspect was probably the most impressive and impactful part of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar,” he states.
As chair of EUSynBioS, Christian expanded his engagement with policy, serving as an expert on the emerging issue of synthetic biology to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). During the last year of his PhD, Christian also became a research affiliate at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk [CSER], conducting foresight activities and assessing the risks and benefits associated with modern biotechnologies. “By the end of my PhD I had grown a lot more confident in my science management and policy skills and was tipping more towards this direction,” he says.
However, he had not yet fully decided between a career in academia and taking the plunge into the policy world. He took up a postdoctoral research associate position at a world-leading laboratory for chloroplast engineering at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology. The idea was to build on his work on logic functions in bacteria and simple plants and use it in more complex plant systems, but little more than a year into this position he received an offer by the German Federal Ministry of Research to contribute to building a bio-based economy.
The policy world
At that point Christian was certain that this was what he wanted to do. This was in part because he had experienced how restrictive regulation on promising new biotechnologies, such as gene editing, affected the work of his and others on plant systems. “I realised that one could develop the greatest of biotechnologies in the lab, but it would not make much difference in the real world if there was no sufficient societal acceptance and suitable regulation. In light of the skills I had acquired by then, I felt that I could have more impact in the policy world than on the lab bench,” he says.
Christian’s responsibilities in the Ministry have included developing and managing research funding programmes; negotiating national and international strategy documents; and providing expert advice to national politicians.
At first, he says the move into policy was “a culture shock”, but now he feels he gets the best of both worlds as he liaises with both academics and politicians and can influence the responsible take-up of new technologies in the area of sustainability.
He says: “My role brings together the different threads of my life – including my work at Cambridge, my interest in policy and my determination to protect biological diversity.” Christian expects the interconnectedness between global environmental and global health issues to play a bigger role in the future, given emerging links between loss of ecosystems and the emergence of zoonotic diseases as animals are forced into closer proximity with humans. “I believe that a green recovery from this crisis is possible, and it may just decrease the risk of something similar happening again,” he concludes.