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 (NASDAQ: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:TVIA), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.