Thomas Edison said, “There is always a better way to do it — find it.” In very rare instances, better ways for many diverse applications find their root in a single common technology. Synthetic biology is the latest such example. Entrepreneurs are coming up with ideas in the field — often converging with other ground-breaking technologies — many of which would sound outright insane to most people.
But, that’s how paradigm shifts occur. Industrial revolutions are first feared, then opposed, and finally celebrated. From making by hand, we moved to mechanical machines, chemicals, computers, and lately robots. The next frontier is biology. Here, I’m discussing three things that can be done in a better way now. All with some innovative, biological disruption.
Harvesting horseshoe crabs
The blue blood of the horseshoe crab is collected by pharma companies for a chemical, coagulogen, found in its amoebocytes. The chemical gelates in the presence of bacterial endotoxins, even at one part per trillion. The test (called limulus amoebocyte lysate test after the crab, Limulus polyphemus) is a standard to test drugs and surgical implants for bacterial infections. The test suffers from two drawbacks.
When a crab is captured, nearly 30% of its blood is withdrawn before it is released back. Research shows that, even if it survives the ordeal, the procedure limits its ability to survive in the wild. The price, at $16,000 per liter, speaks volumes about the economic inefficiency of the procedure and source.
A new approach to detect endotoxins uses antibacterial peptides derived from the African clawed frog. These peptides are attached to a chip that emits an electrical signal on exposure to bacteria or their spores. Another approach includes recombinant production of Factor C, a metabolite involved in coagulogen synthesis.
Considering the great ease and sensitivity of the LAL test, it is a surprise that no one has yet expressed coagulen in a more scalable system such as yeast or bacteria.
The costliest coffee
Would you like a coffee prepared from partially digested coffee beans harvested from the faeces of an animal? Yuck, you say? Well, if the animal were an Asian palm civet, a cup of such coffee would cost you a whooping $600.
The digestive system of the civets breaks down the outer flesh of coffee beans which renders its proteins susceptible. Some of the proteins get altered, leading to a change in taste and aroma. The challenges to the niche industry are the inhumane conditions in which the civets are treated, presence of fakes in the market, and high costs. Afineur (@Afineur), a startup founded by Camille Delebecque and Sophie Deterre, comes to the rescue.
Afineur aims to create better food with disruptive fermentation. The fermentation process simulates the digestive process of the civets and takes two days. The beans are then roasted. Though the team estimates the price of their coffee at $50 to $100 per pounds, it’s still way cheaper (and more sustainable) than the original.
Space tourism, at least suborbital, looks like a near-term possibility. Someday space tourists might even dare to land on Mars. Is there any way we could make those space tourists feel more at home? Turns out, there is.
A recent research study by UC Berkeley and NASA Ames has suggested that the bulk of the mass of a spaceship for a manned-mission to Mars would comprise of fuel, food, and tools to 3D print a habitat for the explorers. The mass, and hence the costs for such a mission, could be substantially reduced by synthesizing a significant amount of food and fuel on the Mars station. If we could develop pharmaceuticals needed during the course of an extended stay, the costs incurred on unmanned supply missions could also be eliminated. All that is needed are some synthetic microbes.
Components of the propellant fuel such as methane and nitrous oxide can be made with methanogens and nitrifying bacteria. Other than these, bacteria involved in production of ethylene, acetylene, ethane, and propane are being optimized to act in the conditions on Mars surface. For food, the tourists would have the choice of either single cell protein such as Spirulina or cultured meat.
Imagination is the limit
There are many other metabolites similar to coagulogen that need to be made in more scalable systems. The fermentative control in Afineur’s case could be used in a lot of other foods as an additional method to control the taste. And, if we stretch the timeline long enough, I don’t see why humanity may not terraform planets other than Earth someday. Advancements in biotech are allowing several industries to manufacture products more efficiently and soon its applications could transcend far beyond the conventional. The 21st century, indeed, belongs to biology.1