Synthetic biology, the design and construction of biological devices and systems, which had been at nascent stage recently has started entering the commercial market. Marked by extensive research and development activities, the global market for synthetic biology reached a valuation of US$1.7 bn in 2012, states a report by Transparency Market Research (TMR). Rising at an exponential CAGR of 32.60% during the period of 2013-2019, it is likely to represent an opportunity worth US13.3 bn by the end of 2019.
Among the potential applications of this new field is the creation of bioengineered microorganisms (and possibly other life forms) that can produce pharmaceuticals, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells, and generate hydrogen for the post petroleum economy.
Synthetic Biology is also predicted to transform Defense and Security. New techniques to edit and modify the genome may allow scientists to harness organisms or biological systems as weapons or to perform engineering tasks typically impractical with conventional methods. DARPA wants to utilize the potential of Synthetic biology, to provide on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, new materials, food, fuels, sensors and coatings whatever suits the military’s needs. Future advances might include the construction of new biological parts and brain-computer interfaces.
The European Commission defines synthetic biology as “the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms.” It envisions the redesign of natural biological systems for greater efficiency, as well as create new organisms as well as molecules with desired bio-attributes.
Synthetic Biology majorly involves the activities such as DNA coding, Synthetic Genes, Bioinformatics, Processing of various Biological Components, Genome Engineering and so on.
Synthetic Biology Applications
It has broad range of applications in sectors, such as medical, energy, chemical, environmental, agriculture, and nanotechnology. In the health and medical sector, it is used in drug discovery, and development of diagnostic kits and vaccines. The earlier products focused on the synthesis of drugs and commodities such as biofuels and rubber. Research is underway that hopes to use synthetic biology in the manufacture of improved biochemicals like Polylactic acid (PLA) is being developed as promising alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.
Currently, the crop yield has decreased globally, owing to a number of factors such as depletion of arable land, shrinking water resources, and reduction of groundwater reserves. “The immense rise in the need for food has impelled the demand for synthetically modified crops, resulting in an increased application of synthetic biology products across the world,” according to Analysts at TMR. “Apart from this, the growing demand for enhanced drugs and vaccines and the advancement in molecular biology are also influencing this market greatly.
Synthetic biology involves engineering microbes like bacteria to program them to behave in certain ways. For example, bacteria can be engineered to glow when they detect certain molecules, and can be turned into tiny factories to produce chemicals. “Ultimately, this is the future — this will be the way we program microbes and other cell types,” said Professor Pamela Silver, one of the authors of the article from Harvard Medical School in the US, “Microbes have small genomes, so they’re not too complex to build from scratch. That gives us huge opportunities to design them to do specific jobs, and we can also program in safety mechanisms.”
Another area of synthetic biology application is in the development of next-generation biofuels. a Californian biotechnology company called LS9 is now developing synthetic E.coli bacteria that can convert natural carbohydrates to one of two biodiesel alternatives. There are also several projects worldwide looking to apply synthetic biology in the creation of third-generation bioethanol. This third-generation or “advanced bioethanol” are created from algae rather than traditional land-grown crops.
Synthetic biology is also being applied in bioelectronics to develop future electronic sensors capable of detecting tastes and smells, development of biochips and biological computers.
The Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology
Ginko Bioworks, the Boston-based biotech startup has pulled in $100 million in Series C funding on the promise of finding many such useful applications for synthetic biology. The company’s microorganisms are engineered to secrete products such as rose-scented oil that goes into perfumes and sweeteners for beverages.
“We’re not in the business of manufacturing chemicals, flavors, or fragrances,” explains Ginkgo creative director Christina Agapakis. “We specialize in the organisms, and we partner with our customers, who will make the product.” Ginkgo licenses organisms to its customers, she says, and gets royalties if they’re used. It also works with DARPA to produce probiotics that will help U.S. soldiers stave off stomach bugs they might pick up overseas but started looking at expanding to other industries last year.
The future of genetic engineering would be performed by software controlled robots carrying out various tasks, such as a line of mechanical pipettes distributing liquid mixtures into vials according to Ginkgo co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly.
It has built Bioworks2, a new, 70,000 square-foot automated facility built to test prototypes of Ginkgo’s designer DNA and create those new products. The company says the bigger footprint allows it to test thousands of versions of a custom microbe at any given time, which means it can create new organisms more quickly and cheaply than with current methods. “We can iterate through designs a lot faster than a traditional life sciences company,” Kelly says.
Ginkgo takes an engineering approach to biology, applying a rigorous design-build-test cycle to the creation of living organisms. The new lab’s extreme automation is critical to this approach, says Patrick Boyle, Ginkgo’s head of organism design. Ginkgo now has liquid-handling robots that quickly move nanoliters of fluid using targeted pulses of sound. For testing it has Mass spectrometry machines that crack open the cells and examine all the molecules inside, checking for the product and also determining whether the yeast is healthy.
Kelly further says it makes more sense for the synthetic biology industry to “establish an ecothsystem of specialized companies that can interact together.” Kelly says that includes synthetic DNA suppliers (Twist Bioscience, Gen9), designers of bioengineering systems (Genomatica), custom microorganism designers and prototype makers (Ginkgo), and larger-scale manufacturers of genetically engineered products (Amyris)
Building with BioBricks
The discipline is fast becoming sophisticated with availability of tools and readymade components. For example, the PartsRegistry.org website now contains a free, “continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems”.
A great deal of practical, technical information on creating synthetic biological systems using standardised components is also freely available from The BioBricks Foundation. Set up by engineers and scientists from MIT, Harvard and other research teams, this not-for-profit organization encourages the development and responsible use of technologies based on standardized or “BioBrick” DNA parts. Some useful resources are also available from the Synthetic Biology and Systems Biology Gateway.
The key companies operating in the global synthetic biology market include E. I. du PONT de Nemours and Company, Amyris Inc., GenScript USA Inc., Intrexon Corporation, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., Synthetic Genomics Inc., Royal DSM, Novozymes A/S, New England Biolabs Inc., and Integrated DNA Technologies Inc.
Synthetic biology market was dominated by Europe in 2014 and is expected have consistent growth in coming years. Europe is followed by North America. Major countries involved are U.S., Germany, France, UK, China, Japan, India, and Brazil.
Some of the key players for global synthetic biology market includes DuPont, Inc., Agrivida, Inc., GeneWorks Pty Ltd., Biosearch Technologies, Inc., Evolva SA, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Green Biologics Limited, REG Life Sciences, LLC and Royal DSM.
However, the concerns of Bio-safety, Bio-security and ethical issues are delaying the approvals from regulatory bodies. The positive factors like assistance from government and private organizations, rising number of entities conducting research and declining cost of DNA sequencing and synthesizing, are accelerating the commercialization of this technology.
Targeted cancer treatments, toxicity sensors and living factories: synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. But before the technology is ready for real-world applications, more attention needs to be paid to its safety and stability, say experts in a review article published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology.
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