October 7, 2015

Synbio for All Things Green: an Overview of SynBioBeta SF Sigma-Aldrich Green Chemistry Session

Green chemistry
Tonya Jackson, Global Product Manager at Sigma-Aldrich speaking at SynBioBeta SF 2014.

What a special array of speakers this year for the Green Chemistry Session of SynBioBeta San Francisco 2015 sponsored by Sigma-Aldrich!

I can only guess the excitement of moderator Tonya Jackson, who will be hosting this all-things-green synthetic biology discussion. The speakers will walk us through novel processes developed in synthetic biology with the ultimate aim to create sustainable chemicals and additives that help reduce toxicity and current dependencies on fossil fuels.

Synthetic biology has the ability to tame nature and to use its complex machinery to solve our everyday problems: we are today able to engineer organisms such as plants and bacteria and to use their metabolic pathways to synthesize the final wanted products (a recent example is the production of morphine. The use of nature as a tool constitutes a powerful green alternative to the use of harsh chemical processes and hazardous substances and our speakers will present us practical examples in support to this statement.

Ms. Jackson makes for the perfect host for the selected guests as she has been working as Global Product Manager in the Research Genomics group at Sigma-Aldrich for more than two years. Initially working with customers that focused their research on gene expression and protein production, she has recently expanded her portfolio to include researchers working on synthetic biology oriented projects such as metabolic pathway engineering and circuit design.

Ms. Jackson will be presenting inspiring speakers, who will also act as spokespersons for their companies, bringing you practical, successful cases of applied synthetic biology.

Founder and CTO of Asilomar Bio, Travis Bayer will be on stage first. Dr. Bayer received his Ph.D. at Caltech, where he was also introduced to synthetic biology. After his postdoc at the University of California in San Francisco, he joined Imperial College in London first, and Oxford later, where  he developed a low-cost herbicide to eradicate parasitic weeds in sub-Saharan Africa. Following successful first trials in Kenya, Dr. Bayer and CEO Eric Davidson formed Asilomar Bio to move the technology into the market.

Asilomar Bio is soon going to commercialize seed treatments and foliar spray products (synthetic plant hormones) to help crops combat parasitic weeds and use water more efficiently. It is estimated that by 2050 food production needs to increase by approximately 70% while utilizing less water and land. Considering that climate change is also having an increasingly negative impact on the production of many crops, only through the work of companies like Asilomar Bio we will be able to overcome such an incredible challenge.

The next speaker is Dr. Joel Cherry, who has been president of Research and Development at Amyris since 2008. Dr. Cherry received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire. He is a biofuel expert, having previously worked at Novozymes as the senior director in biofuel technologies.

Amyris was created by a group of scientists from Berkeley and are one of the finest examples of what a synthetic biology company can achieve. One of their first accomplishments was the engineering of a yeast strain able to produce artemisinic acid, a precursor of the antimalarial drug artemisinin. However, their main aim is to develop a renewable alternative to petroleum-sourced chemicals and fuels and since 2013 they are have been producing Biofene (renewable farnesene) on industrial scale in Brazil. In just above ten years, Amyris has brought a number of visionary ideas to the market and are building a company of more than 400 employees and million of dollars invested.

The next speaker, Dr. David McElroy, will bring you back to the United Kingdom (in particular, Edinburgh), where Ingenza is based. Dr. McElroy will speak about the development of synthetic biology tools and approaches that improve bioengineering predictability in discovery research associated with bioprocessing/green chemistry.

Dr. David McElroy joined Ingenza as Chief Business Officer for his wide experience as an executive in agricultural and industrial biotechnology. David received a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Cornell University. He received his executive education in business at the London Business School and he now has more than two decades’ experience in biotech startups.

Ingenza

David McElroy, Chief Business Officer of Ingenza speaking at SynBioBeta SF 2014.

Ingenza is a synthetic biology/industrial biotechnology R&D company. Its mission is to make microbial engineering more predictable. Core to their business is inABLE®, a unique suite of synthetic biology tools. These include combinatorial genetics, the high-throughput assembly of genes and regulatory regions, together with proprietary screening, fermentation, and bioprocess technologies. inABLE® greatly increases the efficiency with which large numbers of diverse genetic constructs can be combined, evaluated and rearranged thereby shortening the timeframe to successfully construct bio-processes; a very powerful technology indeed.

Ilan Wapinski, Senior Scientist and Head of Computational Biology of enEvolv, will talk next about the progress of the genome engineering company enEvolv, co-founded by Prof. Church, Dr. Koniecza, Mr Farsheed and Dr. Isaacs. Dr. Wapinski holds a PhD and Post Doc from Harvard Medical School and he joined the company two years ago.

enEvolv is based on the east coast and their main aim is to engineer microorganisms to produce bio-based products. The adaptability of synthetic biology strategies is impressive and allows for enEvolv to partner with experts in the most different fields: therapeutics, nutrition, energy and specialty chemicals. Once again, their peculiarity resides in their unique technology that enables them to build and screen a massive number of genomic designs in parallel. This allows for faster and better strain engineering.

What is very interesting about the next speaker is his unique skill set, bringing together business and scientific disciplines. Versatility is key in the field of synthetic biology and Dr. Rober Blazej understood this. He is an experienced biotechnologist with a unique skillset intersecting science, business, and intellectual property. He holds a Ph.D. in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, performing research focused on the design, implementation and characterization of microfluidic systems for next-generation DNA sequencing. Dr. Blazej has been managing Novozymes’ San Francisco Digital Biotechnology department for the past two years.

Novozymes has a global enzyme market share estimated to be at 48% (which makes them the world’s largest provider of enzymes and microbes). Their core business areas are agricultural biologicals, industrial microorganisms, biopharma technology and ingredients. The company is based on the concept that industrial biotechnology can be used to re-engineer most of everyday products to make their production more sustainable by introducing energy cost savings and decreasing the price of the raw material preserving the planet’s resources and ultimately creating better lives.

The interest shown by Novozymes for synthetic biology corroborates yet again the potential of this emerging powerful discipline. In his presentation, Dr. Blazej will talk about some of Novozymes’ sustainable solutions and their strategy for partnering for impact.

Sigma-Aldrich (as per Novozymes) does not really need any introduction. A leader in Life Science and High Technology, the company provides organic and biochemical products and kits to 40 countries, employing more than 7600 employees around the world. the spokesperson for Sigma will be Global Product Manager Jeffrey Whitford who holds a Master’s degree in business administration at Washington University in St. Louis.  Mr. Whitford joined Sigma-Aldrich ten years ago and in his current position he handles the development and implementation of strategic programs in green chemistry, environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

Together with his colleagues at Sigma-Aldrich (among which is Ms. Tonya Jackson) they realize that there is a potential for microbes to manufacture chemicals in a greener way (in contrast to chemical synthesis reactions or the use of non-renewable starting materials). The ultimate aim is to build a portfolio of Greener Alternative Products in chemistry and the life sciences.

Synthetic biology promises to change the world for the better, but this would not be possible if companies such the ones of our speakers were not embracing its potential. The effort that start-ups and well-established world leader enterprises are investing in this field is remarkable, and it is testament to the beginning of a revolution that will help us solve the most compelling problems of our modern society.