Synthetic Biology: A disruptive technology on the horizon

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst

Originally Published March 7, 2018

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Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biological components, systems or organisms to make chemicals or materials. It has the potential to disrupt highly disparate industries ranging from pharma to chemicals, materials, plastics, agriculture, food and even lighting and electronics.

Disruptive technologies can significantly alter the way businesses operate. Think Amazon and how it has changed retailing. Synthetic biology is poised to change the fundamental building blocks of many industries. Understanding what is on the horizon will help companies exploit these changes or prepare for their products to become as extinct as film photography and its associated supply chain.

What is on the horizon?

One needs only to look at the start-ups in synthetic biology to see where the future is headed in industrial chemicals, consumer products, agriculture, food and beverage, and lighting/electronics using synthetic biology. A small sample of these start-ups is shown in Table 1, along with the synthetic biology approach, what they produce and what applications they impact.

Table 1: Synthetic Biology Start-ups

Green Biologics Bacterial fermentation N-butanol, acetone Food additives, cosmetics, personal care, household and industrial cleaners, paints, inks
Verdezyne Yeast fermentation Adipic acid, dodecanedioic acid (DDDA) Nylon, food colorants, anti-oxidants, cosmetics, animal feed additives, nutraceuticals
Lygos Yeast fermentation Malonic acid Flavors, fragrances, pharmaceuticals
Myriant Bacterial, yeast fermentation Succinic acid, acrylic acid Films, plastics, adhesives, sealants
Bolt Threads Yeast fermentation Spider silk Textiles
Modern Meadow Cell engineering Collagen Leather
AgriMetis Enzyme synthesis Herbicides (L-glufosinate), insecticides (spinosyn) Crop protection
Plant Sensory Systems Bacterial cloning Metabolic regulator proteins Improve growth, yield, crop quality
Pivot Bio Soil microbe remodeling Symbiotic microbe seed coating Crop nutrition
Aranex Biotech Gene editing Hypoallergenic peanut plant Hypoallergenic peanuts
Perfect Day Food Yeast fermentation Milk protein Dairy Products
Geltor Yeast fermentation Collagen Food and cosmetics
Impossible Foods Yeast fermentation Synthetic leghemoglobin Juicy ground meat products
Calysta Methane bacteria fermentation protein fish, livestock, and pet food
Clara Foods Yeast fermentation Egg white replacer Food products
Miraculex Gene altered lettuce Miraculin Sweetner
Glowee Gene splicing Bioluminescent e-coli Lighting

Microbial Fermentation

These processes all use genetic engineering to achieve their product goals. In the past, genetically modified organisms (GMO) referred to a plant that had been genetically modified. What differs from the GMO techniques used previously, is the ‘cellular factory’ (generally bacterial, algal, or yeast) is modified, not the final product.

Using engineered bacteria, algae, or yeast enables the organism to create molecules that a) are only produced in very small amounts in nature, or b) are not produced in nature at all. By using synthetic biology, compounds and materials can be produced in commercially viable quantities.

The process of fermentation is well established (ask any brewer) and large commercial scale is not an impediment. Microbes and yeast that are modified can be grown quickly then mixed with the raw materials, the food, needed to produce the final product. The engineering of separation and extraction of products is also well established. This opens the way for very rapid movement from laboratory scale to commercial process once the organism is optimized for production of the chemical of interest.

In addition to using known engineering processes such as fermentation, one of the most remarkable things about synthetic biology is how rapidly the tools and components of this field have been developed. Today, there are several free sites where synthetic biologists and engineers can go to find the parts or bricks of genetic code to use in development of products. Sequencing has become inexpensive making the technique commonplace. Efficient, high-throughput methodology is improving and start-up companies are capitalizing on their expertise and offering services to ‘do’ the genetic manipulation for companies interested in producing a target chemical through synthetic biology.

Gene editing/CRISPR

In the case of hypoallergenic peanuts, the technology applied is gene editing. This gene editing technique is much like a copy editor who removes an adverb from a sentence (ask your writer friend about the much hated adverb for an explanation) or replaces one word with a better word. An example would be: “CRISPR is a very powerful technique that gives a person the ability to change an organism’s DNA.” This would be modified to read “CRISPR is a powerful technique that gives a scientist the ability to change an organism’s DNA.” The key difference between this approach and GMO methods is that the changes are not induced by introducing foreign DNA.

There are now 70 products on the market for applications ranging from industrial chemicals, cosmetics and fragrances to animal feed that are produced using synthetic biology.

Regulatory front

The synthetic biology field is moving so fast that it is challenging regulators around the world. The National Academy of Science/Engineering/Medicine concluded in their 2013 report that “Synthetic biology represents an area of science and engineering that raises technical, ethical, regulatory, security, biosafety, intellectual property, and other issues that will be resolved differently in different parts of the world.” More recently, the National Academy recommended that regulatory agencies up their game in this area so that they have the internal expertise to understand this rapidly advancing field, the safety issues and potential environmental impacts. The EU is also struggling on how to regulate the products of synthetic biology as they do not fall under the definition of GMO or that of the exception to the GMO regulations. The ethics of synthetic biology is a hot topic both with the practitioners and the social scientists.

Public perception

It was in 1992 when plants containing GMO technology were first labeled ‘Frankenfood’ by GMO critics and the moniker has persisted in the public perception. Will the new synthetic biology technologies break through the fear? Maybe, and it depends. Activist groups now label synthetic biology as GMO 2.0 and understand how to use social media to voice their objections.

Ecover, a natural cleaning products company, learned the hard way in 2014 about public perception and synthetic biology. The company chose not to use palm oil in their product formulations because of the significant societal and environmental issues associated with this raw material. They switched to algae technology that produced palmitic acid for one line of their cleaning products. The backlash was quick and harsh with claims that the company was not using natural materials to make their product. Despite the fact that synthetic biology offered the company a way to ethically source their palmitic acid, the public would not accept the substitution of synthetic biology for a natural product.

Ambergris, better known as whale vomit, is illegal in the US because of the endangered status of the sperm whale that produces it. The desired chemical is squalene. Squalene is also found in shark liver. To many, harvesting shark livers is not desirable, but squalene is now synthesized from petroleum. Synthetic biology has changed the paradigm. No longer does this natural product have to be synthesized from petroleum resources but it can be made through synthetic biology. Amyris produces the synthetic version and companies have quietly moved to adding this product to their supply chain.

What is the goal?

If you are looking for a non-petrochemical source, or a chemical that is too expensive to extract from natural sources, or want an alternative to a natural source that is either too expensive or not sustainable, synthetic biology may help. Let us help you keep up with regulatory issues regarding this emerging field. It will keep you in front of the crowd.

How Can Nerac Help?

As a research and advisory firm we can help you identify disruptive technologies on the horizon that have the potential to impact your business, either negatively or positively. We can keep you up-to-date with emerging technologies, mergers, acquisitions, intellectual property and general trade buzz.

Don’t let new technologies blind-side you. Call us at 860.872.7000 or click here to learn more!

About the Analyst

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

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