The emergence of synthetic biology has led to a revolutionary change in the way we think about biological systems. By combining principles of engineering, biology, and computer science, scientists can now design and create new biological systems that don’t exist in nature. Synthetic biology is widely applied in various industries such as medicine, energy, agriculture, environmental, and military, and it is considered one of the biggest innovations of the 21st century.
It is anticipated that the world will face increased competition for limited and finite natural resources given a growing population, increasing pressure on our food and health systems, and climate change and associated environmental degradation decimating our primary production systems.
Synthetic biology is defined 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. Through the design and construction of biological devices and systems, it promises to augment biological life, enabling the development of products which are self-adaptable and that can adapt to new solutions.
Through the creation of novel biological systems, synthetic biology offers potential solutions to many current challenges, such as climate change, energy needs, and global health. For example, synthetic biology may help address global warming through the development of artificial leaf technology, a synthetic version of the photosynthesis process. In the energy sector, synthetic biology is being used to devise more efficient methods of producing biofuels, and in the healthcare sector, synthetic biology may lead to biosensors that can permanently reside in the body to detect and treat abnormalities such as cancer. Synthetic biology has already resulted in biosensors that can detect arsenic in drinking water.
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.
Synthetic biology, which had been at a nascent stage recently has started entering the commercial market. Synthetic biology is already being applied in a variety of fields. The past few decades have seen enormous progress being made in synthetic biology and predicted to enter a phase of exponential growth over the next decade.
For deeper understanding of Synthetic Biology and applications please visit: Creating Life from Code: Understanding Synthetic Biology
Over time, synthetic biology is likely to make a profound impact on our world by changing the way a vast array of products are manufactured, from lab-grown meat to cosmetics to biodegradable packaging. McKinsey estimated in a May 2020 report that as much as 60% of the global economy’s physical inputs could be made using synthetic biology, resulting in direct economic benefits of at least US$1.7 trillion between 2030 and 2040
Our ability to program biology could drive the economy for the next century. The number of synthetic biology articles published per year in peer-reviewed journals has doubled since 2010. There are more than 160 private synthetic biology companies, and since 2009 they have drawn more than $5.4 billion dollars in private investment venture capital.
Number of companies are investing in providing solutions for acute problems in the market and in society. These could be companies providing products that range from new pesticides and fertilisers to ingredients that are extremely sustainable and healthy. It has already created revolutionary products in agriculture, consumer goods, and more.
Synthetic Biology Applications
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.
Genentech was the first modern biotechnology company. Based in South San Francisco, it produced what is arguably the first synthetic biology product: human insulin. Instead of diabetics needing to use insulin extracted from the pancreases of pigs, Genentech used synthetic DNA to make the gene for human insulin, and then spliced it into a bacterium. They then used fermentation and brewing to convert the sugar into insulin. Just like how beer is brewed. Human insulin was Genentech’s first blockbuster drug and has helped to set the stage for the entire bio pharmaceutical sector. The company has since gone on to treat many diseases using drugs that are built with biology, including many of the new advanced cancer medications.
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.
Synthetic biology offers high efficiency to re-engineer and design the artificial bimolecular components and biomaterials, which are majorly adopted in several biological, industrial, and environmental applications such as gene engineering, drug discovery & therapeutics, novel protein synthesis, artificial tissue regeneration, biofuels, industrial enzymes, bioremediation, and green chemicals.
Synthetic biology has a significant impact on the medical industry. Scientists can now create synthetic biological circuits that can sense, compute, and respond to changes in the body. This technology can be used for drug discovery and development, gene therapy, and tissue engineering.
One of the most significant developments in the field of synthetic biology is the creation of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. This technology has revolutionized the way we think about gene therapy and has the potential to cure genetic diseases.
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.
By tweaking the genomes of microbes, bioengineers might produce virus-proof crops, biodegradable computers to be implanted in our brains, or cells that could add nutrients to Martian soil and make the Red Planet habitable.
“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.”
Synthetic biology has drawn increasing attention as a potentially transformative platform technology. Whether found in nature or synthesized in a test tube, the building blocks of synthetic biology are assembled to create biological systems. Synthetic biological systems can function in cell-free environments, such as cell extracts, or may be placed into living cells, such as bacteria, which serve as a “chassis.” In the short-term, synthetic biology is enhancing understanding of how living organisms work through progress in the ability to design and construct biological parts.
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.
This offers us an opportunity, but it also offers us a challenge, said Joško Bobanović, Partner at Sofinnova Partners and the manager of the Sofinnova Industrial Biotechnology Fund. We have been promoting different materials that can self-cure. For example, think of materials that can be used to self-repair being used in construction or on tissue.
Synthetic Biology majorly involves the activities such as DNA coding, Synthetic Genes, Bioinformatics, Processing of various Biological Components, Genome Engineering and so on.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sequencing is important in the development of the synthetic biology in many ways. Synthetic biology is a field of biology science which involves engineering principles. DNA sequencing finds its use in many synthetic biology applications, therefore the availability of the DNA sequencing technique at low cost drives the production of products based on the applications of synthetic biology.
DNA sequencing allows researchers to determine the DNA sequences in genes and helps a researcher to create a repository of entire genomes. These repositories form the basis for the implementation of synthetic biology applications such as protein expression, directed evolution, and metabolic engineering. For instance, in 2018, according to an article by Dante Labs, the first whole human genome sequencing cost about $2.4 billion (2.2 billion euros) in 2003. In 2006, the cost decreased to $0.28 million (250,000 euros). In 2016, the cost decreased to about $1,000 (900 euros).
The recent emergence of CRISPR (pronounced crisper and short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) as a gene-editing tool has enabled even more precise and inexpensive methods of engineering individual organisms, biological systems, and entire genomes.
DNA storage and computation
The new technological advances in the field of DNA sequencing has enabled researchers to use DNA to store non-genetic information. DNA offers potential to store the massive amount of digital data, allowing to store one million times more dense information than flash drives, and this data stored in DNA can be preserved for over 1,000 years. With the rise in the demand to store quantum of data, DNA data storage offers a solution where one DNA strand can store about 455 Exabyte of data (455 billion gigabytes) . Furthermore, it is also easier to prevent or detect the attempt to modify the stored data in the DNA. Currently, various research and possible attempts are ongoing to commercialize this technology.
For instance, in September 2018, the Arch Mission Foundation partnered with Microsoft, University of Washington, and Twist Bioscience to archive 10,000 crowd sourced images and full text of 20 important books, among others, in Astrobotic’s 2020 mission to the moon. DNA-based data storage allows data to be encoded into billions of synthetic DNA molecules and encapsulated for long-term preservation.
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.
Synthetic biology has the potential to transform the energy industry by developing new sustainable and renewable energy sources. Scientists are using synthetic biology to create microorganisms that can produce biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen. These biofuels are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than traditional fossil fuels.
Synthetic biology is helping with the production of biofuels in two fronts:
- Improving existing methods of biofuel production from plants,
- Creating new “cell factories” capable of generating energy from traditional and non-traditional forms of feedstock.
To do so, synthetic biologists:
- Generate industrial enzymes through engineering biosynthetic pathways to either increase the yield or quality of traditional biofuel-generating pathways, or to generate biofuel from novel, engineered metabolic pathways;
- Generate industrial microbes through engineering host organisms as “cell factories” in the form of strain improvement of organisms that are innately capable of generating energy, or strain development through importing useful genes to host organisms that can render them capable of using unique feedstocks to generate energy.
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.
Synthetic biology has also opened up a new landscape for advanced materials with novel functionalities and performance, such as materials that can self-assemble or self-repair.
Synthetic biology has the potential to transform the agriculture industry by developing crops that can grow in harsh conditions, resist pests and diseases, and produce more yield. Scientists are using synthetic biology to create plants that can fix nitrogen from the air, which reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers. This technology can help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and improve food security.
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 companies are reimagining the food space in several ways from revolutionizing agriculture to tackling food waste to coming up with more environmentally-friendly sources of food additives. Starting with the plants in the ground, companies like Pivot Bio and Joyn Bio are engineering soil bacteria to end our dependence on synthetic fertilizers.
Other synthetic biology companies are focused on what happens to food after it’s harvested. For example, Conagen is engineering strains of microorganisms and novel enzymes to synthesize all sorts of food-additives from food colorings, to sweeteners, to meat tenderizers, to preservatives.
But companies aren’t just focused on solid ground. AquaBounty, for example, is combining advances in aquaculture with modern genetics to create the world’s most sustainable salmon, while Air Protein is using bacterial fermentation to make protein from the elements comprising the air we breathe. Several companies, such as Memphis Meats and Meatable, are allowing us to have our animals and eat them too, using synthetic biology to create real meat without harming animals or the planet.
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.
Beyond biomanufacturing of drugs, there are many other ways to apply synthetic biology to biopharma research. For instance, there are several companies engineering microbes not only to produce medicines, but to deliver them in vivo. These so-called engineered probiotics could potentially be tuned to produce drugs in response to a particular stimulus or only in certain parts of the body.
However, the genetic components may interfere with one another because of complexities in the genetic circuits. Researchers at MIT have developed ways in which these circuits can be separated in each synthetic cell. Interactions between these cells can also be controlled; which in turn enables the circuits to be combined at certain times. The synthetic cells in question are not living cells but contain enough cellular machinery to produce proteins and read DNA.
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.
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.
Fashion and fabric
There are several companies using synthetic biology to come up with greener alternatives for fashion must-haves. For instance, Tinctorium, PILI, and Colorifix are finding a way to dye blue jeans without producing hazardous waste. In addition, Mango Materials is using bacteria to turn methane into bioplastics for clothing and other goods that will degrade naturally if they end up in our oceans as so much waste does.
High fashion designer Stella McCartney is bringing synthetic biology to the runway by partnering with Bolt Threads, a synthetic biology company endeavoring to make synthetic silk and faux leather from mushrooms. Bolt is not alone; synthetic silk companies are popping up all over the world, including AMSilk in Germany and Spiber in Japan, and there’s a company in New York called Ecovative Design that’s using mushrooms to create all sorts of materials for clothing, footwear, and beyond.
Synthetic biology can also help us address environmental challenges such as pollution and climate change. Scientists are using synthetic biology to create microorganisms that can break down pollutants and produce biofuels. They are also using synthetic biology to create plants that can absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Synthetic biology could indirectly benefit conservation efforts by allowing the development of artificial alternatives to commercial products normally sourced from the wild. For example, the blood of the horseshoe crab is a major biomedical commodity used to test pharmaceuticals for bacterial contamination. Unsustainable harvesting is pushing the species towards global extinction. A synthetic substitute has been developed that could reduce or replace the need to harvest the endangered crabs. Likewise, engineered microbes and microalgae capable of producing alternatives to omega-3 oils could lessen pressure on declining wild fish stocks.
Applications of synthetic biology are advancing beyond the manipulation of microbes to make desired substances. Strategies to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment to permanently alter entire populations of target species have been proposed as a means to control pollution, eradicate vectors of diseases, eliminate invasive species, and lend resilience to threatened plants and animals.
A major goal of the synthetic biology industry is to develop alternative, biology-based methods for industries that typically use petroleum-based products as inputs and produce carbon emissions as outputs. There are many companies working to produce biofuels or bioplastics. For instance, Synthetic Genomics is engineering algae as biofactories for renewable fuel, and Global Bioenergies is developing processes to ferment plant waste into petrochemical precursors. Others are working to fix carbon more directly by attempting to optimize natural carbon-fixers (plants and cyanobacteria). Long-term carbon storage is also a challenge, and it’s one some synthetic biologists think bacteria can solve by converting carbon dioxide into a liquid state.
Carbon emissions don’t only come from burning fuel, however. There are also biological and environmental sources of greenhouse gas. LanzaTech sees these sources as a useful starting point for making high-value chemicals. Its carbon recycling technology platform captures and converts so-called biogas from agricultural and municipal waste, then converts it to biofuels and other products.
Advanced Materials: Inspired by Nature, Improved by Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology offers the opportunity to create responsive and multifunctional materials. The integration of biochemical components from living systems with inorganic components can lead to new materials that are able to sense the environment (or internal signals) and change their properties. These features could be particularly useful for improving protective clothing or building materials.
An issue when using microbes to produce composite materials is regulating the assembly of these materials to achieve specific desired properties. By understanding how microbes communicate with each other, it is possible to make them work better together and combine them with other production systems so that the properties of materials can be tailored for particular functions.
Interestingly, rather than modifying, or improving existing protein-based materials, an alternative approach involves using computational techniques to design completely novel proteins that self-assemble into predicted shapes. Such “programmable” proteins open up even further opportunities for synthetic biology not only for materials science but also for medicine and chemistry.
The military industry can also benefit from synthetic biology. Scientists are using synthetic biology to create new materials, sensors, and devices that can be used in military applications. For example, scientists are developing synthetic biological circuits that can detect and respond to chemical and biological agents.
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 Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology
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.