Synbiobeta: Synthetic biologic the next big thing after computers
Picture a room of 100 loving nerds discussing their latest findings in, what at the time was the nascent field of synthetic biology. That was Synbiobeta in 2012. This October in San Francisco, 8 years later, over 1000+ synthetic biology enthusiasts gathered for the Global Synthetic Biology Summit. In a short period, the conference has grown over 10x!
You might be asking yourself the same question I once had. What on earth is synthetic biology? Synthetic biology is the power to manipulate biological organisms, the power to manipulate the code of life! Think of software, where computer programs are encoded in 1s and 0s. DNA, the code of life, is written in ATCG. As such, synthetic biology is the field that reprograms and edits the DNA of organisms. By manipulating the genome of organisms scientists can enhance existing organisms to make them more effective, to create new products, to turn them into medicine, to create new foods, among many others.
This field is growing now more than ever before the opportunities are endless, and the revolution is just starting. Those who have been around for a while say this field feels like software felt in the 80s and 90s. We are just at the beginning of the wave.
Why now? What has changed? After all, the fundamental research for this field has been going for many years, but the latest advances have truly unlocked the power to reprogram life. Some of those technologies include sequencing; allowing us to read and understand the DNA of organisms, DNA synthesis unlocking experiments, tools like directed evolution and CRISPR which allows direct edition and insertion in the genome. These fundamental technologies have opened the floodgates for many applications to exist. And scientists are dreaming of new plants, new foods, new ways to cure diseases, the sky is the limit!
For several years now companies have been laying the foundation and underlying infrastructure for this new field. At the heart of the synthetic biology revolution, you can find Ginkgo Bioworks and Zymergen, who can engineer organisms at scale. I am certain in the near future these companies will be regarded as highly as we regard the tech giants of today.
We can now develop food without sacrificing animals. This revolution is led by companies like Finless Foods, Impossible, Memphis Meats. (Note: I am very interested in this topic and will do a separate post) We can create materials based out of bioproducts, like Modern Meadow. We can reprogram bacteria to turn them into living medicines like the work Tim Lu from MIT leads at Senti Bioscience.
Many of us are now looking at synthetic biology to offer us the solutions we so desperately need. Solutions to untreatable conditions like antibiotic-resistant infections, to immune diseases through gene therapy, to environmental challenges like climate change.
I am particularly interested in creating new solutions for antibiotic resistance. The condition that today kills 1 person every fifteen minutes in the United State alone. That is what we are working to solve at Nextbiotics! Leveraging synthetic biology to develop antibiotic alternatives, target bacteria efficiently and offer a chance to destroy pathogens.
Synthetic biology also offers exciting new solutions that we hope can support our fight against climate change. One of my favorite sessions was “Synbio and the Green New Deal” We live in a time where we have used up our natural resources, in many cases to the point of collapse. Synthetic biology allows us to create alternative products and to restore these natural resources. For example, climate change will change the temperature of the Earth, making some places inhabitable for crops. Now we can edit the genome of those crops so they can resist higher temperatures and heavier rains. During the conference, we tried the Modified Papaya, virus-resistant papaya created in Cornell to address drought in Hawaii.
Many of the products we consume today are created chemically, producing toxic waste and environmental damage. Now we can edit organisms like bacteria to produce these enzymes or materials sustainably and efficiently.
During the session, Will Canine, the CTO of Opentrons (a company that develops affordable lab robots) had a powerful message. We all share this planet, and we should work together to save it. Instead of working independently for many years, he encouraged the community to pull resources together and solve problems quickly. Not only because we can, but because we need these solutions and we need them soon.
The community is most excited about combining the digital world with the biological world. The main fireside chat was between George Church, known as the father of genetics, and Eric Schmidt the former CEO of Google. Two worlds colliding and sharing their views on the future. The trend is clear biology can learn and leverage the development of AI to replicate experiments in silico and advance much faster.
There are still however many areas to figure out, the regulatory role and approval of many of these products. The public perception of genetically engineered organisms, particularly in food. The security threat that manipulating organisms represents. These concerns were addressed during the conference by the DoD and other government bodies. Although, it is important to keep them in mind, having these conversations early on and working together will only build a stronger and more robust ecosystem.
Last but not least, it is interesting to see that from the STEM fields biology has been traditionally one with a higher proportion of female representation, especially when compared to areas like math, engineering, physics. However, as the field develops, and companies grow we are seeing higher male representation in leadership positions in these companies. During the event, we celebrated the role of women in synbio with a lunch with the first Nobel Prize winner for synthetic biology Dr. Frances Arnold. Her message was powerful; women are needed in this field, and they are needed at the front of the companies that are creating our new future.
We see clear examples with leaders like Reshma Shetty from Ginkgo Bioworks, Janice Chen at front of the technology at Mammoth Bioscience and Lexi Rovner leading one of the most promising startups coming from the Church lab, 64-x.
Synbio is growing and is growing fast! We are at the start of something big, you can feel it in the air.