In Regenesis, George Church and Ed Regis list the resurrection of long extinct species as one of the grander, future applications of synthetic biology. To think someday, we might encounter living mammoths, produced by reconstructing their genomes and raised in the wombs of surrogate elephants! One of the most pressing and immediate goals for synthetic biology is to help limit the current extinction of species driven by greed and black market demand.
Wildlife trade is the second largest of all illegal trades by volume globally, dwarfed only by narcotics. Animals are either poached for fur, ivory, and horns or are smuggled across international borders for use as exhibits or pets. The market size is estimated to be worth about $20 billion, though hard figures are difficult due to the complicit nature of the trade. By endangering endemic species, it is also leading to anomalies in the local ecosystems.
Que the new startup, Pembient (@Pembient), who is promising to fight this illegal trade by making artificial alternatives to these highly sought-after commodities. Take for instance a rhino horn– a single horn can fetch in up to $300, 000 in Vietnam. In South Africa alone, 1116 rhinos were poached last year; that’s 3 rhinos a day. These rampant killings are fueled by traditional Chinese medicine beliefs that claim the horns can cure fevers, convulsions, and headaches. Though these beliefs have been passed down through the generations, none of the medicinal properties have been verified which makes these practices even more horrific.
Matthew Markus, who has previously co-founded startups involved in genetics, mobile and internet space was concerned about poaching of rhinos for their horns. In early 2014, he met George Bonaci who had an extensive knowledge of keratin and had previously invented a unique formaldehyde-free hair straightener. As luck would have it, their fortuitous meeting may be the most beneficial yet in the hunt for a solution to these merciless rhino poachings. Matthew knew that rhino horns were primarily made of keratin which is also the key protein in our skin, nails, and hair. Realizing that biotech had progressed significantly since his days at the university, he came to the conclusion that the bioengineering of these horns may be feasible. After reaching out to George to discuss the possibility of recreating the rhino horn, they decided to come together and form the start up today we know as Pembient. With Matthew as CEO and George serving as VP Product, the two of them, coupled with their shared love for technology and animals, are a driving force out to save planet earth and its occupants.
The team is currently investigating two major approaches. The first of these involves tissue engineering, while the second is more of a biochemical approach. The duo has invested significantly more time as well as money in the latter. Their detailed approach has allowed them to rapidly create prototypes that are similar to actual rhino horns. The likeness involve both spectrographic and genetic resemblances. When asked about further details on their technology, Matthew chose to remain secretive. Not surprising, given that they are one of the first to target the rhino horn trade in such an unusual manner. The typical solution has been to prevent it all together. Pembient has received $50, 000 in seed funding from Indie Bio and a place in their next San Francisco batch that starts on February 28th.
Ceratotech, a competitor, is betting their stakes on the engineered tissues approach. Garrett Vygantas, CEO, and Karl Handelsman, CBO of the startup, are trying to tackle the same problem by using stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells or adult cells reprogrammed to behave like stem cells have been in vogue in regenerative medicine since their Nobel prize winning discovery in 2006. Currently, Vygantas has a patent for the process that turns rhino skin cells into keratinocytes. These are the cells that produce the keratin in the horn. The idea led the team to be among the top 25 semifinalists for the Extreme Tech Challenge 2014. The unimaginable scale of the market and the contradictory nature of the solution these startups offer hints that there is room for more than one great company to operate in the domain.
The one common thread between the two startups, outside their mutual interest in rhino horns, is the variety of products their approaches can create. Other popular animal products that could be realized using the platform technologies of either company are tiger bones, ivory, and pangolin scales. However, there are few doubts that cannot be ruled out. For a start, by making the rhino horns easily accessible, these companies could be fueling the traditional belief that is at odds with evidence-based medicine. Matthew disagrees and thinks that there hasn’t been much research into its medicinal properties.
“I understand why the general conservation message is that rhino horn is not medicine. It is a simple message. The more complex message is that even if rhino horn does have some medicinal properties, rhinos are rare and should be protected,” he says, “and that in the end, users of rhino horn are going to use rhino horn regardless of the facts. Creating an artificial supply seems like the best way to meet their demand.”
Illegal wildlife products aren’t the only aim of these companies. Many legal animal products are produced in an unsustainable manner and a host of other synthetic biology companies are redefining conservation by making their production sustainable. Modern Meadow (leather and meat), Afineur (civet poop coffee), New Harvest (meat), and Muufri (animal-free milk) are promising examples. As Matthew Markus states, it is the dawn of the Conservation 2.0 era.