Our livelihoods – food, jobs, energy – depend on functioning and resilient global supply chains. Unfortunately, the uncertainty caused by the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic from region to region has made it difficult to resume business on a global scale.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, companies and countries have struggled to ensure steady supply of key inputs to the normal functioning of our economies. The worldwide supply chain continues to be affected by challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, including delays and disruption. Many chief executives now identify supply chain turmoil as the greatest threat to their companies’ growth and their countries’ economies.
The ongoing Russia and Ukraine war has disrupted key commodities and other products. Food producers that depend on wheat exports from Ukraine, a country known as “the breadbasket of Europe,” are at risk because the spring planting season is in jeopardy.
A global climate catastrophe will dwarf the impacts of the pandemic. Its consequences will be felt especially by developing economies that are already suffering relative economic losses three times greater than high-income countries due to climate-related disasters.
Biotechnologies, including synthetic biology, are going to be foundational to the 21st century economy. Synthetic biology is already a multi-billion-dollar industry with broad range of applications in health and medical sector, energy, chemical, environmental, food and agriculture. By the end of the decade, syn-bio products are predicted to be more than a third of global output of manufacturing industries with $30 trillion value. It is also predicted to transform defense with on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, new materials, food, fuels, sensors, and coatings whatever suits the military’s needs.
Synthetic biology can be defined as engineering approach to biology. And it aims to re-design of natural biological systems for useful purposes as well as design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems.
How it does it? Any organism’s sensing, metabolic, and decision-making capabilities depend on unique sequence of DNA bases within their genome. These DNA base pair sequences determine how a cell grows and what goes on inside it or what it produces. By changing an organism’s genome sequence, we can alter these cellular functions, and thereby engineer them.
Let’s now consider some of the technologies and tools of synthetic biology which allow us to engineer biological systems. The first technology is to read DNA or DNA Sequencing, that determines the order of the DNA base pairs or biological instructions that are contained in a strand of DNA.
A difference from the expected sequence of a gene is called a variant or mutation. Comparing healthy and mutated DNA sequences scientists can diagnose different diseases including cancers and deliver more individualized medical care. The rapid speed of modern DNA sequencing technology has enabled sequencing of complete genomes of numerous types and species of life, including microbes, animals, plants, and the human genome.
The second is gene editing technology, and CRISPR has become one of the most popular gene editing tools as it is fast, cheap, and easy to use. It can locate, cut, and replace DNA sequences at specific locations modifying the function of that gene. CRISPR uses modified RNA sequence to recognize DNA sequence in genome and bind to it. The RNA also binds to the Cas9 enzyme that cuts the DNA at the targeted location. CRISPR enables Gene therapy that add, delete, or correct genetic material to treat a disease.
Next technology is DNA synthesis that is the natural or artificial creation of DNA molecules. We have already seen natural creation, during cell division DNA helix splits itself and each strand of DNA serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is natural DNA synthesis process is called DNA replication as it self-replicates or make copies of itself.
Traditionally Artificial DNA synthesis techniques were chemical and relied on toxic chemicals and generated hazardous waste. Further it could synthesize short DNA or RNA molecules called oligonucleotides about 200 bases long. Lengthy sequences resulted in more errors and low yield of correct sequences. To assemble even a small gene, scientists used to synthesize it in short segments and then stitch them together. This was also prone to failure and often required multiple attempts. Therefore, traditional DNA synthesis particularly in long strands, was slower and expensive.
New DNA synthesis technique is called Enzymatic DNA synthesis (EDS). This technique employs DNA-synthesizing enzyme found in cells of the immune system. This enzyme can naturally add nucleotides to an existing DNA molecule in water, where DNA is most stable. The improved precision of this technique allow synthesis of DNA strands several thousand bases long or size of a medium-sized gene.
This technology has enabled development of DNA printers. Earlier scientists would search out sections of DNA code in nature, cut the DNA out of existing organisms, and then insert it into a new host organism in a ‘cut-and paste’ process. DNA printers can build artificial DNA from scratch with any DNA code you want. You don’t need to find DNA in nature anymore, you just buy it in from the internet. There are also several commercial companies that provide DNA synthesis services.
Most synthetic biology companies are coming up with artificial DNA codes that can be inserted into microbes, plants or animals forcing them to make industrially useful compounds. The self-replicating property of DNA allow this to be scaled up, to millions of ‘programmed cell factories’ filling a big industrial vat.
In effect Synthetic biology has turned the bioscience into the future manufacturing paradigm where Companies can engineer and manufacture an infinite quantity of things, cell by cell, from scratch. These bioengineered microorganisms, plants and animals can produce pharmaceuticals, repair defective genes, develop new generations of vaccines, destroy cancer cells, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, and generate hydrogen for the post petroleum economy.
Synthetic Biology’s role in supply chain crisis
Synthetic biology is a field of mind-blowing possibilities. Synthetic biology will transform how we grow food, what we eat, and where we source materials and medicines. Products from synthetic biology are rapidly permeating society and by 2030, it is highly likely that you will have eaten, worn, used or been treated with one. The earlier products focused on the synthesis of drugs and commodities such as biofuels and rubber.
It has broad range of applications in sectors, such as medical, energy, chemical, environmental, agriculture, and nanotechnology. Many commercially available synthetic biology products have been developed to provide alternatives to existing high-value commodities, especially those dependent on the petroleum supply chain and non-renewable resources. Synthetic alternatives and replacements for substances conventionally derived from nature are also gaining ground in research and market spaces.
In the health and medical sector, it is used in drug discovery, and development of diagnostic kits and vaccines. In healthcare sector, synthetic biology leading to rapid development of new vaccines. During Covid-19 mRNA vaccine was rolled out in less than 12 months.
In the energy sector, synthetic biology is producing biofuels efficiently. Plastics and nylon are byproducts of petroleum that could be produced using synthetic biology. Some fertilizers are derived from natural gas and a recent study reported engineered bacteria could be used as a substitute for ammonia-based fertilizers, which currently rely on natural gas.
Biofuels based on engineered microalgae, have high fat and carbohydrate content, grow rapidly and are relatively robust. 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. 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.
About half the world’s drugs are derived from plants and nature-based materials. According to the FDA, some 78% of active pharmaceutical ingredients manufacturers are located outside the US. As more pharmaceutical companies tap into the power of synthetic biology to create these chemicals, dependence on supply from abroad will wane.
Synthetic biology is increasingly being used by scientists to develop genetic circuits that can be planted in cells for the production of useful molecules & drugs. There are a multitude of companies using synthetic biology to engineer pathways that enable microorganisms to produce medically relevant drugs. Famously, Amyris engineered yeast to produce the antimalarial drug Artemenisin. Synthetic biology can also improve in-vitro drug manufacturing. For instance, Codexis uses synthetic biology to develop more efficient enzymes for synthesis of small molecule drugs.
Nitrogen-producing microbes can replace chemical fertilizers. Genetically modified microbes are being used to produce food that is more sustainable, ethical, and healthier.
Food and flavors
recent events have exposed vulnerabilities in different parts of the food supply chain. For example, during the pandemic, as US consumers faced major meat shortages, Tyson Foods (TSN) warned that the “food supply chain is breaking.” Synthetic biology can be used to create alternative protein sources, which can be manufactured in a variety of locations because they can be economically viable at a relatively small scale, according to the Good Food Institute; a distributed supply system is more resilient to disruption. In Singapore, 90% of all food is imported, so the country has been at the vanguard of regulatory approval for cell-culture meat. Synthetic vanilla now commands up to 85% of global supply, solving chronic supply difficulties for a flavoring that is naturally produced mainly in Madagascar.
Cosmetics and fragrances
Your clothes may not be the only thing you’re wearing that will soon be shaped by synthetic biology. There are also synthetic biology companies targeting makeup, skin creams, cologne, and perfume. Traditional ingredients for cosmetics are often animal-based, raising purity and animal rights concerns. For example, collagen is a popular ingredient in high-end anti-wrinkle creams, because it’s responsible for skin elasticity. But collagen is sourced from animals, meaning it’s not vegan-friendly, and it can elicit purity and allergy issues. Geltor is using synthetic biology to produce animal-free collagen substitutes. Biossance, an Amyris spinoff, has also used synthetic biology to create an animal-free cosmetic additive, squalane, which was traditionally harvested from shark livers.
it’s become the norm to find that your shirt or shoes were manufactured on the other side of the planet. But McKinsey reports that 71% of apparel and fashion companies are planning to increase nearshoring by 2025. McKinsey predicts that synthetic biology fermentation can yield significant cost savings in production of materials such as nylon, silk, cotton, and clothing dyes.
Polymers have infiltrated almost every aspect of the life. Man-kind is using polymer materials of natural origin, such as proteins (silk, wool, etc.), carbohydrate polymers (cellulose, starch, etc.), later natural rubber from a very long time. Many of these materials are rather expensive and the resources are limited.
“Synthetic polymers are considered to be an invaluable gift of mod-ern sciences and technology to mankind”. They are extensively applied in diverse fields, such as healthcare, veterinary, agriculture, food, consumer products, packaging, building materials, industry, etc. However, the resistance of synthetic polymers to chemical and biological degradation has become a serious concern especially when used in the fields , such as surgery, pharmacology, veterinary, agriculture and the environment. Hence, degradable polymers are a rising field in terms of novel design strategies and engineering to provide advanced polymers with good performance.
Constructive Bio has completed a $15 million (€15 million) seed round and gained an exclusive license from the Medical Research Council to intellectual property (IP) developed by Professor Jason Chin’s Laboratory (The Chin Lab) at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC-LMB).
The Chin Lab has pioneered the development and application of methods for reprogramming the genetic code of living organisms, rewriting the near-universal genetic code of natural life to create organisms that use new genetic codes. The new organisms deliver remarkable properties: they are resistant to a wide variety of viruses, they can be programmed to make new unnatural, or synthetic, polymers, and even perform entirely new functions.
The company, which is headquartered in Cambridge, UK, is based upon two core proprietary platform technologies. One is a large scale DNA assembly to construct large chunks of DNA at unprecedented scale – such as whole bacterial genomes can be built from scratch. The second is genome reprogramming that systematically recodes whole genomes to engineer unnatural products for commercial applications.
Together, the MRC technologies will be used by Constructive Bio to synthesize polymers with non-natural amino acids for commercial applications across a range of industries including novel therapeutics and antibiotics, enhanced agriculture, manufacturing and materials.
In addition, the new organisms’ phage resistance can be used to increase bio-manufacturing yields. Further, novel polymers can be designed with the ability to breakdown and recycle the monomers to support a circular, sustainable economy, offering approaches to transform industries such as the $750 billion global polymers market, and help overcome global challenges such as climate change to benefit the planet and mankind.
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. 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.
Electric vehicle batteries
a professor from Columbia University used synthetic biology to develop a special microbe that can extract precious materials from a mine in a more environmentally sustainable way. This can help improve local sourcing for electric vehicle batteries in the US.
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.