Bacteria have been Public Enemy No. 1 for most of our species' time on Earth. Although Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it wasn't successfully mass-produced until World War II. Even then, seven decades is small on a timeline spanning 200,000 years. For those of you keeping score at home, bacteria are winning in a landslide.
Enter synthetic biology. The aim is to reduce the complexity of life to its most basic parts, hijack the genetic code of microbes, insert completely new biological parts into a range of hosts, and turn the scorn of humanity into a tool for advancing civilization. We may have a long way to go before we even the score, but some novel ideas of synthetic biology could pile up some big victories for our species.
Synthetic biology has game-changing potential for every aspect of daily life and every segment of the economy. Its emergence has many believing that a transition to a bioeconomy (link opens PDF) is inevitable. While nearly the entire field lies out of the reach of individual investors for now, it's never too early to do your initial research. Here are just a few projects that will bring synthetic biology to your doorstep.
1. Building life
Imagine a software platform that allowed you to specify the conditions (temperature, pH, pressure) of your chemical process, select the parts or functions you want your microbe to possess, and hit "print." It may sound too good to be true, but this isn't some fanciful idea from the plot of a sci-fi movie. This is the engineering platform that synthetic biology company Ginkgo BioWorks is developing.
In other words, the company isn't growing life. It's building it.
Ginkgo's platform is tackling biomanufacturing problems in industries from energy to health care, although no industry is out of reach when you can design cells from scratch. How does the company do it? In much the same way that standardized mechanical parts from the Industrial Revolution enabled countless technological breakthroughs, BioBricks allow Ginkgo to reliably create microbes batch after batch. The open-source registry of biological parts, which can be purchased and inserted into a microbial host, is being fully supported by the industry.
It may sound like a crazy business model, but decades from now Ginkgo's work today will probably be likened to early versions of Microsoft and Intel. They had some pretty crazy ideas for their time, too.
2. Novel flu vaccine production
Did you get a flu shot this year? Chances are, the vaccine injected under your skin was developed in a chicken egg. That may weird you out, but there are some serious drawbacks to the industry-standard manufacturing process. It can be difficult to cultivate large amounts of uncontaminated chicken egg factories quickly, and the purification routine needed to attain finished product is a nightmare. Not to mention that not all flu strains -- which mutate each year -- can be easily grown with this method.
That's why Protein Sciences' progress in vaccine manufacturing is such a big deal. The company's recently approved process uses armyworm cells (hey, they're better than chicken eggs) to create a purer, higher-quality vaccine at a cheaper cost.
If Protein Sciences can successfully navigate market forces, then I wouldn't bet against seeing it disrupt the $1 billion U.S. flu vaccine market led by Novartis (NYSE:NVS) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK). While the new vaccines haven't been shown to be any more effective than egg-sourced predecessors, they may be a hit with consumers who prefer natural products, are allergic to eggs, or follow a vegan lifestyle. CEO Manon Cox is even looking into potential partnerships with natural stores such as Whole Foods. Out of my way, Walgreen -- I need to get a flu shot.
3. Non-traditional food sources
There are limits to the amount of cargo that can be launched into space, but astronauts' appetites have no such limits. It should be no surprise, then, that NASA has studied the potential of algae and cyanobacteria to provide nutritional diets for spacefaring humans since the 1960s. One ounce of the cyanobacterium seaweed spirulina contains just 80 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 16 grams of protein, and 44% of the daily recommended intake of iron.
Synthetic biology aims to improve on those numbers even further. Algae companies such as Aurora Algae, Blue Marble Biomaterials, and Solazyme (NASDAQ:TVIA) are just some of the names targeting nutraceutical applications for their platforms. The nutritional oils these companies produce can replace pricey, unhealthy oils currently accepted as the status quo in foods. If Solazyme has its way, then a healthy diet may one day include ice cream, candy, and cookies.
Dr. J. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, even sees synthetic biology disrupting the world's meat production. According to Venter, "It takes 10 kilograms of grain and 15 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef." It will be a long while before you eat meat grown in a bioreactor, but the day will surely come. Cows, you've been warned.
4. Pigeon poop goes green
If you think bacteria are annoying, try walking around a modern city without tripping over a pigeon (seriously, why don't they move?). Health officials are more concerned with the health risks posed by their droppings, which can harbor dangerous fungi and bacteria. Where does synthetic biology come into play?
Tuur van Baalen created the concept of Pigeon d'Or, which teamed up with James Chappel and the Centre for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College in London. A harmless microbe, such as those in yogurt, was designed to be fed to and temporarily change the gut flora of these annoying, city-dwelling birds. The concept proposes that the modified birds could be released into the urban wild wielding their biodegradable, environmentally friendly surfactant droppings.
Essentially, we could turn pigeons into a flying armada of sanitation workers. That could save some serious cash for cities such as New York, which have 12,750 miles of sidewalk to clean. One day you could even park under a tree or fix your car with pigeon-friendly resting places to get a free car wash. Everyone wins!
5. Living Foundries DARPA Program
The Department of Defense spends $23 billion per year on repairing systems that are required to operate in harsh, corrosive environments. The Living Foundries Program is attempting to provide a biological solution to the costly problem -- with numerous potential windfalls. One of the goals of the program is to reduce the cost and development time of industrial biotechnology platforms, which require hundreds of millions of dollars and more than seven years to bring to commercial scale.
The two largest entities on the program's payroll are The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amyris (NASDAQ:AMRS). Although currently focused on reducing losses and adding production capacity, the company has already successfully scaled production of hydrocarbon building block farnesene and malaria drug artemisinin -- the first major commercial breakthrough for synthetic biology.
The world-changing impact of DARPA's former projects, including those that spawned the Internet and GPS, has kept excitement for the project pretty high among those aware of its existence. Need mass quantities of a new vaccine next week? Has a natural disaster wiped away a region's food, fuel, or energy capacity? No problem: Synthetic biology to the rescue.
6. Pathogen detectors
We live in a world with multiple layers of security and protection: smoke detectors, security systems, antivirus programs for our computers, and the like. Did it ever occur to you that we have no comparable system in place to protect against lethal pathogens? Don't panic: Sample6 Technologies has us covered. For its first product, the startup is tapping the power of synthetic biology to create sensors for detecting harmful bacteria in the food industry in nearly real time.
What's the advantage? As Sample6 co-founder and COO Michael Koeris explains, the food system in place today is "fundamentally safe." Food processors swab products with a sponge, ship it to laboratories for testing, and cross their fingers that nothing went wrong. This process takes several days and puts producers in a precarious position. Do they ship potentially contaminated food and hope for the best or hold onto products for several days -- costing valuable shelf life -- until results come back?
Sample6 wants to take the guesswork out of the equation and eliminate costly recalls that can severely damage a brand's reputation. After conquering the food industry, the company has plans to develop similar detectors for health care, retail food chains, and water monitoring applications. Unfortunately, I have been told that a horse meat detector is not on the radar.
7. Biocatalytic carbon capture
Installing post-combustion carbon capture, or PCCC, systems in a power plant can be pretty cost-prohibitive, which puts those calling for increasingly tougher pollution and emissions regulations in a tough spot. Storing carbon dioxide underground can be even more expensive, besides the fact that it has been demonstrated at only relatively small scales.
Enzyme producers Codexis (NASDAQ:CDXS) and CO2 Systems teamed up with Alcoa and the Department of Energy to pioneer a different approach. Codexis hijacked microbial genomes to increase the carbon capture ability of natural carbonic anhydrase by 2 million-fold, which could reduce scrubber column size by 95%, chemical use by 80%, and capital expenditures for a PCCC system by $146 million.
The technology not only reduces emissions and costs but also stores carbon in various alumina and fertilizer products -- effectively turning CO2 into a revenue stream. Despite the program's initial success, the group disbanded after determining that commercial deployment wouldn't be possible by the Department of Energy's mandatory funding date of 2014. Nonetheless, the project was hailed as one that "could fundamentally change the way the country uses and produces energy." It's not a question of if biocatalytic carbon capture is revived, but when.
8. Terraforming and colonizing Mars
Who said our newfound fascination with synthetic biology has to stay grounded on the third rock from the sun? Humans will one day make their way to the Red Planet, but bringing along enough supplies for a permanent presence would require impossible amounts of fuel and money.
By contrast, a test tube of frozen microbes could fit in an astronaut's pocket. Cells brought along for the journey could be cultured using the abundance of elements and sunshine found on Mars to produce dietary supplements, building materials, and even biopolymer resins for 3-D printing factories. Photosynthetic algae and bacteria could even be spread across the planet to pump greenhouse gases and oxygen into the Martian atmosphere and create a habitable environment, albeit over the course of decades or even centuries. Ironically, our evolution into a multiplanetary species may very well hinge on our ability to work with bacteria.
Foolish bottom line
Synthetic biology has enormous potential to transform the world, but it also comes with a fair share of hurdles. Several of the technologies I've mentioned raise moral and ethical questions that will need to be sorted out for widespread adoption. However, I believe the reward side of the equation heavily outweighs the risks associated with many of these disruptive technologies. The only limits are our imagination and relatively limited understanding of biology.