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Bioremediation Bacteria Hunter

Drew Hendrickson, BS ’19 Microbial Biology and Chemical Biology

DREW HENDRICKSON smiling in a lab

Drew Hendrickson, BS ’19 Microbial Biology and Chemical Biology.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Drew Hendrickson’s job title is Head of Organism Discovery and Assay Development for BluumBio, an innovative bioremediation company based in Berkeley. But one might think of him as a bacteria hunter. His fascination with bacteria, first sparked in his teen years, has propelled his passion for identifying enzymes in nature and engineering them to break down toxins and restore degraded landscapes.

It was the environmental degradation caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 that set Hendrickson on his path toward UC Berkeley and bacteria hunting. “It was this doomsday moment, with crude oil in the ocean and on the beaches,” he says. “But I was amazed by how quickly the deep-sea bacteria growing on underwater oil seeps could help clean things up. Humans made a mistake, but the bacteria were ready to go.”

A Personal And Academic Home

As a “sensitive, gay, Filipino boy” whose military family moved frequently, Hendrickson felt more comfortable in nature than among his peers. He later found an accepting and nurturing environment at Berkeley and became a leader of the UNITY Resource Center, a student group that promotes identity exploration and community engagement through a lens of gender and sexual diversity. He organized workshops as well as a drag show on campus and attended the Creating Change Conference in Washington, D.C.

Hendrickson started out as a chemical biology major. “I thought that chemistry was like eating my vegetables: It was good for me,” he says. “It taught me the ‘how,’ but I didn’t have my ‘what.’”

Upon joining the lab of Norman Terry, longtime professor of plant and microbial biology who passed away earlier this year, Hendrickson found his motivation—his ‘what’ and ‘why’—in microbiology. “I loved how bacteria were so intimately at the middle of everything, how they affected water, soil, plants, and human health,” he says. He added microbial biology as a second major.

Terry’s lab was engineering bacteria and plants for environmental remediation of petroleum hydrocarbons in the polluted soil around a former Shell petroleum refinery. The team gathered four native species of plants from the site and screened more than 36 consortia, or collections of bacteria attached to plant roots. As part of a Sponsored Project for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) grant from Rausser College, Hendrickson helped collect and analyze bacteria to see how well they could break down contaminants and promote plant growth. The best-performing bacteria were added to seedlings to be replanted on site. The experience formed the basis of Hendrickson’s senior thesis.

Multiple laboratory vials in a vial holder on a lab countertop

Drew Hendrickson’s culture collection in the BluumBio lab includes Rhodopseudomonas palustris (left), a bacterium that has potential to be used as a biofertilizer that can also degrade toxins.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Among his colleagues in the lab was Katherine French, a postdoctoral researcher who mentored him through the thesis project. After graduation, Hendrickson spent two years at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researching bacterial adaptation in a subsurface watershed that was contaminated by the Manhattan Project. “It was an opportunity to learn something valuable out of the trauma on the land and understand how bacteria adapt to the stresses of radioactive pollution,” he says.

Coming Into Bluum

In 2021, French invited Hendrickson to join a team of synthetic biologists, genetic engineers, and plant biologists in her new enterprise: BluumBio. An early participant in the UC Berkeley Energy & Biosciences Institute’s incubator program, the company selects microbes and plants from polluted soil and groundwater and evolves them in the lab to eat the toxic waste in situ, eliminating the need for costly removal of contaminated substrates.

Using a process called directed evolution, Hendrickson and his colleagues improve bacteria to address environmental pollutants like PCBs—highly carcinogenic chemicals formerly used in industrial and consumer products—and PFAS, so-called “forever chemicals” present in many modern-day products that hardly degrade in the natural environment. “We screen thousands of mutants for top-performing variants and in months can develop optimized proteins for clients that would otherwise take 100 to 200 years to evolve in nature,” he says.

Drew Hendrickson using a pipette in a lab
Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Among BluumBio’s clients is UC Berkeley, which is working to remediate PCB, arsenic, and heavy metal pollution at the Richmond Field Station—a former explosive manufacturing site acquired by the University of California in 1950. He’s also surveying three other California sites with PFAS pollution, including the Travis Air Force Base Superfund Site.

Hendrickson speaks excitedly about his ever-growing microbial armamentarium designed to take on such toxins. “This month I’ve grown an acidophile, a thermophile, magnetotactic bacteria, photosynthetic algae, and fungi that degrade chlorinated compounds,” he says. “It’s very fun and satisfying to have a new microbe at the end of the day.”

His experiments don’t stop when he clocks out. In his free time, he loves cultivating “bizarre organisms” like bioluminescent microbes, mantids, and carnivorous plants. Hendrickson also grows orchids from the Philippines to feel closer to his ancestry. He recalls growing up hearing stories about gender-fluid Filipino shamans, who communicated with the spirits of nature to heal the land—an inspiration for his own work cultivating bacteria for future bioremediation challenges.