Skip to main content
Quentin Dudley
November 3, 2023

Focus on new faculty: Quentin Dudley is engineering plants to produce medicine, fuels and more

Written By: Jason Daley

Most of today’s pharmaceuticals and chemicals are produced from petroleum products or refined from natural materials, often using energy-intensive and costly methods. But as it turns out, we’re surrounded by fast, efficient bioreactors that can do the same work.


That’s why Quentin Dudley, who will join the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering as an assistant professor in January 2024, is engineering plants to produce biomolecules that could be used in medicines, biofuels, plastics, agriculture and many other applications.

“Synthetic biology really captured my imagination because it’s this evolving discipline,” he says. “We try to make biology, which is inherently complex, a little messy, and optimized by millions of years of evolution into a rational engineering discipline.”

Dudley, who grew up in southwestern Minnesota, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before pursuing his PhD at Northwestern University. There, he helped develop a new approach for prototyping enzyme pathways for metabolic engineering. Conventionally, biological engineers use varieties of microbes such as well-studied E. coli bacteria to synthesize enzymes and useful molecules. However, that means keeping the cells alive, which can be costly and time-consuming. Dudley and his team found a way to use just the bacterial “guts” to produce the enzymes in a much faster process called cell-free protein synthesis.

During his graduate studies, Dudley realized that most metabolic engineering uses sugar as a substrate. That sugar primarily comes from plants. “That inspired me to pivot into doing a postdoc fellowship where I explicitly looked at the plant side of the equation,” he says. “Plants are some of nature’s most sophisticated chemists. I thought we could take the microbial fermentation step out of the loop and make the compounds we want directly within the plant. That’s easier said than done.”

Over four years at the Earlham Institute and John Innes Centre in Norwich, United Kingdom, Dudley worked on developing tools for engineering plants to produce valuable bioactive metabolites. One project included producing strictosidine, a precursor to anti-cancer compounds, in tobacco plants.

He also spent a year leading the analytical chemistry team at the plant synthetic biology company Calyxt, which gave him insights into the industrial side of synthetic biology. For the last year, he’s been a field strategist for the nonprofit research organization Speculative Technologies, identifying risky but promising research areas in metabolic engineering for philanthropic investment.

At UW-Madison, Dudley will continue his work in plant synthetic biology. He says he plans to use the cell-free synthesis techniques developed during his PhD to pioneer high-throughput prototyping techniques to speed up the plant engineering process.

The university is a great place for his lab, Dudley says, not only because of its excellent chemical and biological engineering department, but also because of its agricultural roots. “I wanted to be at a university where all of my tinkering in plants could be backstopped by a university full of experts in botany, horticulture and agronomy—so that as we are developing the basic tools, I have the collaborators and community to actually take this into an agroeconomic system,” he says. “Wisconsin is a great blend: a strong department with a commitment to synthetic biology and data-driven research, but also just an incredible wealth of equipment, facilities and collaborators in an agricultural space.”

Top photo by Joel Hallberg