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5 Unbelievable (but Real) Technologies Made Possible by Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology, or breaking down life into its basic component parts to create enhanced biological systems, can be likened to writing software that enables life. Or genetic engineering on steroids. Whereas previous technologies may have introduced one, two, or a handful of genes into an organism, synthetic biology allows scientists and engineers at companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks, Fermentome, and Intrexon (NYSE: XON  ) to rebuild large swaths of an organism's genome -- or create an entirely new genome, and therefore organism -- from the ground up using the best traits offered by nature.

While some are turned off by the idea of tweaking organisms or altering nature, constructing synthetic genomes is akin to taking the building blocks of the physical world (atoms) to produce novel compounds (such as synthetic polymers) that enable the production of enhanced consumer products. Here the building blocks are genes, the novel creations are more efficient genomes and creatures, and the end products are the same everyday items produced from petroleum. The difference is that instead of transforming a petroleum feedstock with high heat and pressure in a chemical refinery, we'll be able to utilize biological pathways in sugar-consuming microbes to produce the same (or better) products in a sustainable and renewable process in a biorefinery.

Although it's easy to understand the applications of the field for the production of fuels and industrial chemicals, such as with the industrial biotech platforms of Amyris (NASDAQ: AMRS  ) and Solazyme (NASDAQ: SZYM  ) , understanding and harnessing the power of the genetic information found in nature extends far beyond chemicals. Synthetic biology can be used to make our food safer, give us working copies of broken genes to cure diseases, trick us into forgetting that we're addicted to nicotine, produce safer (and more) marijuana without plants, make agricultural products more efficient than ever before, and much, much more. Let's explore five unbelievable technologies made possible by synthetic biology to ensure we don't sell the field short or fail to recognize its tremendous potential.

1. Microbial factories for everyday products
When people say that industrial biotech companies are creating living factories by utilizing biological pathways in sugar-consuming microbes to produce everyday products, I don't think they quite understand the power -- or disruptiveness -- of that statement. Sure, engineers can tinker with genomes to create novel microbes that produce a fuel or high value chemical, but it barely scratches the surface of industrial biotech applications.

Amyris' first commercial-scale facility in Brazil feeds locally grown sugarcane to yeast to create premium fuels, cosmetics, lubricants, fragrances, and more. Image source: Amyris.

Consider that Amyris will be able to produce multiple molecules from the same microbes by simply altering environmental stresses inside its bioreactors. While it would take a continuous fermentation process (rather than a batch process with a defined beginning and end) to reap the full advantages, such microbes could help reduce risk related to scale-up today by introducing novel pathways into an organism that already grows for industrial purposes. Amyris won't be able to make an instant leap to full commercial scale for each new molecule, but it could conceivably do so more quickly.

It's a wild idea in the primitive stages of commercial deployment (multiple-molecule microbes could make their debut in 2014), but the future could be even wilder. As we further our relatively limited understanding of DNA, we'll be able to produce smaller and more efficient genomes that call on the same genes to produce multiple products. By the time we pack our bags for Mars, we'll probably be able to bring along a single test tube containing the ultimate microbial factory capable of producing fuels, pharmaceuticals, food, and polymer resins (for our 3-D printing factories) at the flip of a (genetic) switch.

2. Biosensors for food pathogens
We are surrounded by real-time security and protection systems. The smoke detector in your kitchen rests overhead as you make your morning coffee, you set your home's security system before you leave for work, and once you arrive there your computer reminds you that your antivirus software is out of date. So you may be surprised to know that, despite its importance, there is no comparable system in place for the nation's food system. Luckily, synthetic-biology company Sample6 has developed a solution that will enable food producers to mitigate risks in their production systems, which can reduce brand pressure from any number of potential sources in our fast-paced modern world.

Image source: Sample6.

The best current solution for detecting food pathogens is pretty archaic: Food producers swab equipment, work areas, and food itself, send samples to a lab, and then sit around for several days waiting for results. Most choose to ship product before results are confirmed to maximize shelf life, but on the rare occasion a pathogen is detected, well, it's a logistical nightmare to recall all products that may be associated with a particular production shift. Tests from Sample6 provide results and detect harmful pathogens within the same production shift -- enabling food producers to fix contamination issues quickly and stopping tainted products from entering the food supply. In the future the company will offer similar tests to grocery stores, hospitals and clinics for infectious microbes, and oil and gas companies for water monitoring.

3. Marijuana without the plant
While few people in the nascent synthetic biology industry would like to associate themselves or their companies with the controversial issue of marijuana, deregulation coupled with the economic opportunities will eventually force a company to take the leap. That's my prediction, anyway. What role could synthetic biology play in the marijuana industry? Perhaps the biggest opportunity lies in taking the biological pathway for producing cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana such as THC, out of plants and redesigning it in an industrial microbe.

Sound far-fetched? Consider that Amyris took artemisinic acid production out of plants and scaled the process in yeast. The molecule is the precursor to the malarial wonder-drug artemisinin, which had a terribly unpredictable global supply when grown with traditional agriculture. Thanks to synthetic biology, Sanofi is now producing about 33% of the world's supply of the drug (under a "no profit, no loss" principle), which has stabilized prices. Similar approaches have been used by Amyris to stabilize and expand the global supply of cosmetic emollient squalane (naturally found in olive plants and shark livers) and in various renewable oils produced by Solazyme, which have major production and quality advantages when compared with oils found in palm oil or other agricultural crops.

Does this grow house look safe or easy to regulate to you? Image source: Riverside, Calif., Police Department.

So why use synthetic biology to produce cannabinoids? There are a few potential advantages. An industrial process for producing the compounds could be more easily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, produce higher-quality and safer legal stockpiles of the drug, and allow for larger production than is possible with plants. If such a process existed, then perhaps residents of Colorado -- which requires all product sold in the state be produced in the state -- wouldn't be facing a marijuana shortage to begin 2014.

4. Fixing your genes to cure diseases
The era of personalized medicine may very well be ushered in on the heels of synthetic biology. Editas Medicine and Agilis Biotherapeutics, which has partnered with Intrexon, are two of the most promising companies pursuing DNA-based therapeutics that will turn off or edit disease-causing genes in humans. Although the former has been quiet about specific disease targets since launching late last year (link opens a PDF), it will use wildly popular (and innovative) CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology to fix multiple human genes at once -- an advantage that has eluded other DNA therapeutics to date.

Agilis has announced that it will pursue treatments for Friedreich's ataxia, or FRDA, with Intrexon. The current treatment options for FRDA focus on supportive care and symptom relief, while no FDA-approved treatments target the underlying cause of the rare genetic neurodegenerative disease. That's probably because (1) the disease is estimated to affect only 10,000 individuals in the United States and (2) humans are new at fixing DNA. The collaboration seeks to create novel gene therapies and genetically modified gene therapies for regulating protein deficiencies associated with FRDA.

Intrexon has taken the idea several steps further by applying synthetic biology principles to developing stem-cell technologies and even designing a new class of cancer drugs. It will take longer for synthetic biology to achieve success in health care because of regulatory hurdles, but Editas, Agilis, and Intrexon could force doctors, insurance companies, and patients to rethink their approach to medicine. 

5. The end of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers
While you have probably heard about the promise of genome editing in enabling personalized medicine, I'll bet substantially fewer people are aware of the ability to create plants that produce their own fertilizer, specifically nitrogen. Applying too much nitrogen pollutes soil and waterways, while applying too little can hurt yields and livelihoods. Why not create crops that produce just enough naturally to optimize growth and make it to your dinner table?

A new interdisciplinary and international collaboration between researchers in the United States and United Kingdom aims to make waves doing just that. The first goal of the $13 million partnership is to find long-lost bacteria (they were literally lost) with a unique biological pathway for transforming nitrogen into ammonium, or fixing nitrogen, in the presence of oxygen. The bacteria were originally found in hot toxic environments, which mean scientists will scour volcanoes and coal fire seams around the world to rediscover them for their unique biological parts. No joke.  

Is this synthetic biology or a trip to Mordor? Image source: USGS.

The second goal (two projects) is to use the building blocks of life to create a biological module that fixes nitrogen and can be stably inserted into a plant cell. Obviously, completing the first goal would make the second goal much easier to complete, although it isn't required for success. Meanwhile, fully 40% of the initial funding is earmarked for the third goal, which will go to four different researchers with the collective goal of optimizing the symbiotic relationship between plants and native soil bacteria that store, transform, and exchange nitrogen compounds with the roots of plants. Hopefully, the pursuit of multiple, compounding solutions from the beginning of the project will yield a more favorable public opinion toward the application of synthetic biology in agriculture than the common hatred of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Foolish bottom line
The amazing thing about synthetic biology is the ability to harness the building blocks of life given to us by nature to not only create biological products -- cannabinoids, renewable oils, nitrogen-fixing plants -- but also to create products traditionally associated with harsh synthetic processes, such as fuels, car tires, and high performance polymers. Advances from the field can also be used to fix our own genes and, one day, create humans that are immune to most natural pathogens. The point is that everyone should appreciate and welcome the nearly limitless potential that synthetic biology holds for a wide range of industries. In fact, the only limit is our own understanding of biology. 

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Read/Post Comments (10) | Recommend This Article (28)

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  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 11:22 PM, redlion62 wrote:

    Most of the fear of GMO's has come from the religious right and the people who want to be all natural. The religious fear that if we figure out genomic sequences and create new " Life " we are stepping on their fictional God. The others who aren't really religious but want it all " Natural " forget that people have been selectively breeding plants for what we want for thousands of years. Distrust in the corporate world plays a big role in both of these groups opposition to genetic engineering; mostly both of them really don't understand the science behind it. Internal combustion engines and electrical distribution through lines would be prohibited under the fearful reactionaries of today. With proper safeguards and testing genetic manipulation offers a whole new world; I really don't understand why people fear this area of science. I blame too many religious fundamentalists who don't really grasp science involved in the political process and media and education. Cars might have been powered by hydrogen today if it weren't for the Hindenburg disaster and the emergence of petroleum 100 years ago. The real problem is half the people are below average intelligence and are easily manipulated by the status quo religious organizations who control them. I wish the geneticists can find the gene for intelligence and put it in the water supply!!! LOL

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 12:51 AM, mebrownj wrote:


    Thanks for your articles on synthetic bio. As a healthcare IT support person I'm particularly interested in your #4 topic. I've held ALNY and currently hold SGMO and am very interested in how the gene editing/regulating tools industry develops. CRISPRs are so easy that they are developing almost open source, while the 'old' tech zinc fingers is propritary to SGMO (and they have TALENS as well). I wonder how the two efforts will develop concurrently?

    Keep up the excellent commentary.


  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 7:42 AM, YoodenVranx wrote:

    Thank You for Your effort, Unfortunately we feel we made an error in commissioning your piece but we are prepared to genetically manipulate you into accepting lower payment,oh ,wait ,we can do that without the expense and humiliation of having to pretend to raise scientists to our control-level.

    I too am most interested in your #4 topic as it is the only one that appears remotely necessary.Everything else is either laughably unnecessary such as nitrogen fertilizers,(no really:check out polyface farms or four seasons farms or any farmer who has livestock and isn't farming where the bison should be.) or counterproductive in the holistic view.(e.g.point #3)Taking medicinal plants out of context,e.g.out of their biologically suited location where they not only live but seem to fit with other plants as well, because of an effect observed in that biosystem does not guarantee the same result elsewhere.If that sounds obvious, good, maybe you will please consider the spiritual shock to the system too.Marijuana was first legalized in sates for medicinal purposes .It was first legalized by the Federal government,by the supreme court no less for religious purposes.(the case was actually over a different plant which also had properties believed to be especially spiritual.)Medical patients who don't want to be stoned all the time because they want to make the most of their workday,or who sadly only have a little time left might have a point,but they might also be missing the point too.Having a traffic accident (no deaths) made me think about how I treated other people more completely than I did before,which was often thorough and respectful but not necessarily productive or spiritually lively.the best would have been prevention.planetary health is so often not poisoning ,maiming much as curing anything. treated bed nets are still the #1 non-ddt method of preventing malaria.they are much cheaper than teams of scientists genetically engineering anything and the results in the case of nets is immediately interpretable by the user which is never going to be the case for the gmo alternative even if the user is qualified because it will take a team to comprehend the (knowable) immense ramifications of its use.

    Once again thank You for your efforts ,they are more comprehensive and better researched than mine but i promise you there is a wealth of information which in terms of common sense ,would limit both genetically engineered anything and nano tech,for one how are you going to clean up your own mess?

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 10:35 AM, investisseuse wrote:

    Intellect and curiosity meet stock picking: I love it!

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 2:04 PM, PsiKick wrote:

    The idea that the marijuana plant will be rendered useless is laughable for many reasons. First, no process will reproduce all the chemicals in a real marijuana flower that cause a high or the ones for taste. There are so many that every crop is different. Second, it's a plant that can be grown outside extremely cheaply, chemical processes cost money. Third, smoking pleasure is a major part of using it.

    An industrial process to make synthetic THC might have a small medical use but people are not going to part with their joints and pipes.

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 2:18 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:


    "First, no process will reproduce all the chemicals in a real marijuana flower that cause a high or the ones for taste."

    No, a process taking the exact same biological pathway from a plant and inserting it into a microbe could theoretically produce the exact same compounds. You could do it for each variety to create unique strains with the same capabilities. That's the point of the artemisinic acid, squalane, and renewable oil examples.

    "Second, it's a plant that can be grown outside extremely cheaply, chemical processes cost money."

    Over time, it would be cheaper for large scale production to be conducted in an industrial process.

    You do bring up a good point about how marijuana is ingested, though. However, don't assume manufacturing cannabinoids in an industrial process would result in a product that couldn't be smoked. I guess we'll have to wait for someone to tackle the manufacturing issue/opportunity head on!


  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2014, at 10:03 PM, Tiensman wrote:

    "I wish the geneticists can find the gene for intelligence and put it in the water supply!!! LOL"

    Then redlion62 can take a big drink and let everyone know where the natural building blocks originated from, certainly not the "fictional God"

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2014, at 6:41 PM, oyam wrote:


    SAFEGUARDS?!?!?!?!? LMAO

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 10:01 PM, GoodPyrenees wrote:

    Wouldn't be easier to determine why legumes are able to host nitrogen fixing bacteria and engineer that into other plants?

    I would suggest that there is absolutely no religious objection to GMO. That idea smacks of conspiracy theory. The fact is we have be employing gene management through slective breeding for centuries but now the molecular biologists can do it more precisely.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 10:57 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:


    "Wouldn't be easier to determine why legumes are able to host nitrogen fixing bacteria and engineer that into other plants?"

    The root systems of many plants, including agricultural crops, have symbiotic relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria, but that alone doesn't supplant the need for synthetic fertilizers. That's why giving plants the ability to fix nitrogen themselves would be so important.


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Maxx Chatsko

Maxx has been a contributor to since 2013. He's currently a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University merging synthetic biology with materials science & engineering. His primary coverage for TMF includes renewable energy, renewable fuels, and synthetic biology. Follow him on Twitter to keep pace with developments with engineering biology.

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