The consequence? An automated revolution in biotechnology, where cheap computing meets mass-reproducible synthetic biology, begetting an industry with the potential to surpass anything that went before it. The opportunity is tantalising, the prospect mouthwatering.
The trillion-dollar scale-up
“We’re taking the tenants in big biology; abstraction, modularity, standards, composition; and making that discipline computational,” says Densmore, who believes there are huge dividends to be reaped for whoever can truly embrace the potential of computational synthetic biology. “We’re trying to make a core engine for biology, to build a base of common software.
“That’s how standards emerge. If everyone’s making it compatible, that’s how things start to connect.”
Densmore likens the current situation in biology to Moore’s law of integrated circuits for silicon chip design — the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis is rapidly decreasing while the platforms that automate the processes continue to proliferate and improve in efficiency, reproducibility and affordability. This, he says, provides a fertile playground for responsible tinkering – and a huge opportunity.
“I’m talking about the play of engineering. What if I put these two parts together? Oh, that works just like Legos. And then when you’re done playing, responsibly — a keyword, we need to do this in a safe and ethical way — then you write rules down.” Densmore suggests. “It’s going to be an interesting change in the way people think.”
“You don’t hear much in synthetic biology, except, ‘let me simulate this system.’ I think that’s part of it, but how do we forward engineer it?” He challenges. “I don’t think anyone has figured it out, but I think that could be really powerful.”
The play of engineering
In Densmore’s lab, the constraint of size and toxicity in single cells means that play of engineering genetic circuits and proteins is limited — and microfluidics are high on his wishlist of future advances in synthetic biology.
“We’ve looked at ways to partition circuits, making them smaller and putting them in multiple cells and doing intracellular communication,” he tells me, contemplating how that might work. “The way we want to do that is take the cells in that community and put them in a microfluidic that we fabricate as well.”
Harking back to his electrical engineering background, Densmore envisions a time when, in the same way you might order a PCB today, you could get on-demand fabrication circuits for microfluidics. “It’d be like a breadboard for biology. If you could describe the environmental setup that you want to replicate, and then get a chip that implements that, that would be neat.”
Lattice Research Automation
Densmore, also Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, traverses two streams: academic and industrial. “There’s a place for commercializing academic research in the computational side of synthetic biology,” he tells me. “We commercialize ideas as software.”
In 2007, inspired by an introduction to synthetic biology by Professor Chris Voigt of MIT who bemoaned the lack of software tools in the industry, Densmore set his mind to building the required computational infrastructure. However, when these operations didn’t quite scale in academia, he founded Lattice Automation in 2013.
“It’s meant to be Ferrari, not Ford,” he explains of Lattice’s technology, which is fine-tuned to each use case. “We really do custom software engagement, we’re not trying to make something for everyone. If you have an idea, we take some of our tools and help you realize that.”
But although academic research is in the DNA of Lattice Automation, Densmore finds it’s industry that has really grasped the benefits of platform-based design.
“People are saying more of the right things now around standards and protocols, certainly more than they did ten years ago, but I don’t see the needle moving as much in academia. Maybe it’s not incentivized to democratize,” he muses. “Industry is doing a better job.”
COVID as a catalyst for building biology
Densmore points to Ginkgo Bioworks and Twist Bioscience as great examples. “Ginkgo are unapologetic about the way that they try to automate processes, to make biology an automated discipline. Twist shares a similar viewpoint, about how things can be built in the foundry kind of way.”
I’ve already written on how these companies have used their malleable and scalable platforms to pivot to the COVID-19 pandemic, showing the versatility and power of synthetic biology to respond in a time of crisis, and Densmore suggests this ability for rapid response is the catalyst we needed for how people view automation and standardization.
“Before COVID, no one understood the notion of urgency. COVID has really shown that there are times we need to be really quick with how we reproduce and scale biology,” he offers. “I think after COVID, we’re going to have a lot more ammo to speak to this problem because now everyone gets it. How do we make ourselves a bio-ready infrastructure?”
The future of synthetic biology
While these technical advancements are important for Densmore, it’s especially vital to increase diversity within the industry in the next few years, something he says has been lacking, especially at the CEO level. Much like his computational innovations and aspirations aim to expand access to synthetic biology, he sees great potential for this to be “a democratizing area.”
“I think synthetic biology can help science be more diverse. If you talk about how things have changed in the last ten years, that’s probably the slowest,” he contemplates. “I think this is an area that can attract. It’s new enough, exciting enough, and could get students excited, and that will change the face of the field.”
I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Thank you to Peter Bickerton for additional research and reporting in this article.