When SynBio started in the early 2000s nobody really knew where it would lead or if it would impact scientific development significantly. Today, 17 years later, we have a flourishing industry whose innovation is rapidly changing other classic science sectors such as biotech, agriculture and others. Let us examine how we got here and what it’s like to be a synthetic biologist now compared to at its conception.
Following in the steps of most great science, this journey started in academia; founded by people with bold ideas and great vision. Starting with toggle switches and oscillators to the construction of the first Boolean gates and memory elements, we now have entered a more sophisticated realm of genetic engineering. Through low cost DNA synthesis, we can now engineer microbes as well as mammalian cells with unprecedented functions. Additionally, the discovery of CRISPR opened the doors to potential safe gene editing in humans while adding another layer of possibilities in manipulating microorganisms.
In 2006, Jay Keasling’s lab was able to successfully engineer yeast to produce the antimalarial drug precursor artemisinic acid. It proved to the scientific community that a pathway derived from plants can be taken apart and rebuilt in a microorganism with commercial value. Jay Keasling’s lab demonstrated how it was possible to move synthetic biology from the drawing boards and scientific papers to real life industry. This commercialization created a path for other players to be taken seriously and for synthetic biology to be discovered by potential investors.
The steady rise of SynBio is in great parts possible through cheaper writing and reading of DNA. Synthesizing genes of interest to clone and sequence-verify them in a fast and cheap way is key to create new and novel organisms and pathways. A recent player in synthesizing new DNA from scratch is Twist. Their silicon-based DNA synthesis platform is competitive in the market and will hopefully help to drop the per-base price even more. They recently announced that in collaboration with the BioBricks Foundation, Twist will provide 10,000 genes to the synthetic biology community!
A leader in commercializing synthetic biology is the organism company Ginkgo Bioworks. Founded in 2006, Ginkgo was able to attract a variety of investors and achieved an astonishing funding of $100 Million in the beginning of 2016. Seldom a week passes when there is not a headline about a new Ginkgo venture. From producing fragrances in collaboration with Robertet Ingredients to customized microbes for agriculture with Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, Ginkgo has it’s robotic hands in many sectors. The latest groundbreaking news is Ginkgo’s collaboration with the Life Science company Bayer to create a completely new company. This partnership is further proof of how successful Ginkgo’s concept is and how well established synthetic biology is in the mindsets of traditional Biotech/Pharma.
SynBio is attractive not only to industries such as Agriculture and Biotech. A handful of synthetic biology companies are trying to revolutionize our food market. With an ever increasing population and decreasing growing space; sustainable food options are an emerging field. Working towards a solution are Clara Foods, who are developing the first synthetic egg white and Perfect Day who work on animal free dairy. Furthermore, the classical pharmaceutical industry is also heavily influenced by SynBio. CRISPR Therapeutics and Intellia, are working on establishing the Cas9 mediated gene editing in humans. Synlogic is engineering microbes to treat a variety of diseases and recently dosed their first human subject in a Phase I clinical trial.
Statistically the SynBio industry has a projected growth of $13.4 bn by 2019 in the US, and $40 bn by 2020 globally. From commodity chemicals to health care – synthetic biology is here to stay, while potentially overtaking classical biotechnology as we know it. The companies mentioned in this article are only a drop in the bucket of more than 400 companies worldwide that identify with SynBio. Many of the companies are searching active for talented people to help realize their visions.
Truly, from the early 2000s to now, SynBio came a long way and it is a great time for this exciting scientific discipline. The future surely looks synthetic.
About the author
David Lubkowicz is a synthetic Biologist focusing on microbiome engineering for therapeutic purposes. He strongly believe that engineered probiotics will have a big impact as future therapeutics.0