Teleported molecules, custom genomes, and other innovations that will deliver on the technology’s biggest promises.
Synthetic biology — making things from scratch out of biological components — has been flourishing for decades. But now, improvements in DNA sequencing and synthesis technology are leading synthetic biologists to make bigger, bolder, and more plausible proposals for solving some of humanity’s biggest problems.
Pharmaceutical, energy, and agricultural companies have largely used genetic engineering to manufacture tricky-to-build molecules. Today, however, synthetic biology is poised to create many things that would not be possible otherwise in applications as diverse as plant fertilizer, textiles, and digital data storage.
“I think DNA is going to be the most important material of the 21st century,” says Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience, which makes customized DNA strands that can be used for a variety of purposes, including ultra-dense data storage. “The last century was about computers, and now we are entering an era of biology.”
Google, Amazon, Procter & Gamble, Apple, and IKEA all sent representatives to the recent SynBioBeta 7.0 conference in San Francisco. “All of these companies that you wouldn’t really expect to see at a synthetic biology conference are now clamoring to do deals, partnerships, to get integrated into this new industry,” says SynBioBeta co-founder John Cumbers.
“If you think back to the 1960s, when we were just inventing the transistor and then going through the history of Silicon Valley, the microprocessor, the Internet, the Web — now 25 percent of the worldwide economy is built on that technology,” Cumbers says. “It’s difficult to say the timeline, but let’s say in the next 25 years, the biology stack and the amount of value that’s built on top of it will definitely be more than 25 percent of the worldwide economy.”
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So what’s all the fuss about? Here are six of the trends and developments worth watching in the coming years:
Run-off from nitrogen fertilizers is a major source of water pollution and a persistent environmental problem. What if we didn’t need to apply so much fertilizer?
Some plants, like peas and soybeans, make their own fertilizer — or more to the point, microbes that thrive on those plants do it for them by “fixing” the nitrogen that’s in the air in soil. Those bacteria don’t do well on other common crops, so synthetic biologists will try to make ones that do. A startup called Ginkgo Bioworks and the chemical giant Bayer are putting $100 million into a partnership to develop synthetic organisms that provide nitrogen to plant roots, reducing the need for fertilizers. Meanwhile, Pivot Bio is trying to boost microbes’ nitrogen-fixing abilities. “What everybody in the field would like to see with microbes is a renewable and sustainable way of producing that fertilizer,” says Karsten Temme, CEO of Pivot Bio. “It really has been a long-term, elusive goal for the field.”
A flu virus can spread across the world within days, but flu vaccines usually lag far behind new strains. To make a new vaccine, researchers must locate the emerging strain, box it up, and ship it to a vaccine development company, which injects the viral particles into chicken eggs to generate large amounts of antibodies and then packages those as vaccines. The whole process takes at least a month, often longer. But what if vaccine developers could cut down travel time by sending viral DNA as easily as they send an email?
Craig Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics recently started peddling the BioXP, a machine that can “print out” digitized sequence data as DNA or RNA strands and add them into bacteria. Printing genes with BioXP machines still requires customized ingredient kits—most bio labs wouldn’t have the right chemicals in the right amounts on hand, so researchers order ingredient sets from Synthetic Genomics beforehand. But later incarnations of biological-to-digital converters may be able to recreate entire viruses from digital data sent as email attachments. It’s akin to teleporting molecules.
Synthetic Genomics’ vice president of DNA technology, Dan Gibson, envisions a future where digital-to-biological converters will become commonplace in hospitals, allowing doctors to “print out” customized medicines for patients. “There’s just a wide range of applications: medicines, biochemicals, biofuels,” he says. “DNA is really just the start of making anything downstream from RNA to protein to whole bacterial genomes.”
While organizing the SynBioBeta conference, Cumbers noticed a common theme in the newcomers’ companies: food. Specifically, synthetic versions of protein-rich animal products.
The idea of lab-grown meat and dairy has been around for years, but 2017 saw a major uptick in funding for synbio food companies that are making agricultural products from cells and microbes. These companies are betting that they can meet the world’s skyrocketing demand for meat, eggs, fish, and cheese in a sustainable and profitable way. While companies such as Memphis Meats and Finless Foods are developing lab-grown meats for human consumption, other companies are working toward making fish farms more sustainable and the fish within them healthier. Microsynbiotix is genetically engineering algae to make edible vaccines to protect farmed fish.
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We tend to take the blue of our jeans for granted, but the industrial dyes that imbue mass-produced clothing with its color are no joke. Workers who inhale dye fumes often have lung problems, and textile plants are one of the leading sources of water pollution worldwide.
However, designer Natsai Chieza sees a potential solution in the colorful stains left by microbes. She uses bacterial cultures to dye scarves in colorful patterns. In her current role as designer-in-residence at Ginkgo Bioworks, she is working with scientists to find ways to scale the process up.
In the future, synthetic organisms may also be woven into the fabric of our clothes. A venture called bioLogic, led by Lining Yao and based at the MIT Media Lab, uses bacteria that expand when they encounter moisture to make a fabric that reacts to sweat by opening up “vents” in the fabric.
Synthetic biologists who tinker with bacteria have a limited toolkit. Generally they work with the bacterium E. coli. If you want a gene translated into a protein, clone it and put it in E. coli is how the traditional logic goes. E. coli is the species that lab equipment is built to handle. But what if the gene you’d like to add doesn’t jibe with E. coli’s genetic machinery? The gene might work better in a different organism.
If synthetic biologists could take advantage of more species’ natural talents, they could grow biofactories with higher yields than E.coli, and many new synthetic biology products could emerge, says Sarah Richardson, co-founder of MicroByre. To make it easier for scientists to manipulate other species of bacteria, MicroByre is developing lab equipment that can host other microbes. “It is absolutely an accident of history that [E.coli]’s the one that we focused on,” she says. “We literally pulled it out of our butts.”
Tweaking the genes of bacteria is one thing. What could you do by programming bacteria—or more complex organisms—entirely from scratch?
That big question is driving Genome Project-write (GP-write), a follow-up to the Human Genome Project. Its leaders expect that taking genomes apart and writing new ones will deepen their understanding of biology and provide a foundation for future technologies. They might synthesize a yeast genome by the end of the year.
At present, only a handful of elite synbio labs can write entire bacterial genomes, but GP-write’s goal is to make gene writing cheaper and more accessible. Their stated goal is to reduce the cost of genome writing to less than a thousandth of what it costs today.
The non-profit Center for Excellence in Synthetic Biology is coordinating the work, led by NYU’s Jef Boeke; Harvard’s George Church; Andrew Hessel of Autodesk; and Nancy J Kelley, the former founding executive director of the New York Genome Center. A few pilot projects are getting off the ground, including an attempt to create human cells (in petri dishes) that can make all of the essential vitamins and nutrients themselves. Some groups within GP-write are focused on technology issues such as how to assemble a chromosome-length DNA strand. Others are focused on public outreach and finding ways to include more people in the bioethical conversations around genome engineering.
Kelley says public perceptions of gene engineering are among the initiative’s biggest obstacles. “When people are thinking about the engineering or synthesis of the human genome, they immediately jump to a Brave New World of designer babies,” she says. “That’s not where this project is going.” She adds that working in human cells—but not in actual humans—will “advance the ethical and social conversation about how we want to use these technologies.”