The genetic modification of biological systems already comprises some $350 billion or nearly three percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic product. Rob Carlson, managing director Bioeconomy Capital and author of Biology is Technology terms this the “Genetically Modified Domestic Product.”
This bioeconomy includes crops, drugs, fuels, industrial enzymes and materials. When he published Biology is Technology, Carlson pointed out:
Current biotechnology demonstrates impressive and disproportionate economic performance despite the fact that the underlying technology is presently immature compared with other sectors of the economy.
“Impressive and disproportionate economic performance” means that using biotechnology enables fewer people to create value faster than individuals in established industries, such as finance and transportation/logistics. Those immature technologies are collectively getting known as synthetic biology are evolving so quickly that there are multiple definitions for the field. Among them:
Synthetic biology is a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and b) the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.
Synthetic biology is an emerging area of research that can broadly be described as the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems.
Two of the best explanations of the field are these videos:Synthe
The definitions are useful because they emphasize design and construction, because in the beginning biotechnology was an artisanal skill, rather than a science. They emphasize the redesign of existing biological systems because nature has given us a toolset. But that existing biotech tool set – the one biotechnology has used for the first 50 years of its history – is not adequate for the design and construction of new, predictable and reproducible systems for useful purposes.For our purposes, we will simply define synthetic biology as a movement to “make biology easier to engineer”
While we can’t predict the future, we can look at the field’s 2016 accomplishments:
- Stanford bioengineers have created a multi-step pathway consisting of genes from several different organisms, including opium poppy, California poppy, bacteria and rat. They have inserted those pathways into yeast to produce morphine from sugar.
- The first companies focused on gene editing went public and the first gene editing experiment on a human was conducted in China
- Food and fragrance industry clients began purchasing engineered microbes to produce novel flavors and smell and assure consistent supplies of the ingredients they use to create their products
- A small company launched the first commercial DNA hard drives for data storage and made those available on Amazon.com
- The most valuable biotechnology deal of the year was a venture between old-pharmaceutical company, Bayer, and a gene editing company to develop therapeutics for blood disorders, blindness and congenital heart disease
- A global athletic wear manufacturer announced the creation of a shoe made entirely from engineered spider silk while a vocal anti-GMO sportswear manufacturer inked a deal with a spider silk manufacturer
- Researchers synthesized the largest therapeutic virus to treat bone cancer in dogs – setting the stage for personalized cancer therapeutics
- Genetically modified mosquitoes were released in limited quantities in the tropics to prevent the spread of Zika virus
- More than US$1 billion was invested into synthetic biology companies in 2016, often by technology investors who previously avoided biotechnology because of its long development timelines
These developments – like the almost daily news around the targeted gene editing tool, CRISPR – are public. If you pay attention. But just as most of us have little idea of the size of the bioeconomy, even fewer have an idea how quickly the field of engineering biology is moving.
While digital media has disrupted and continues to disrupt most industries, biology hasn’t because there is no common set of tools. There is no application program interface (API) that makes it easy for disparate systems to communicate. There is no reproducible design capability. Measuring the impact of cellular-level changes is a challenge.
But the tools are rapidly being put into place.
On one end of the equation, London startup Synthace has created an operating system for lab equipment. Synthace’s operating system and language, Antha, let’s scientists start at a whiteboard, design a framework for their experiments, then fully automate the hardware they use for their experiments.
Boston startup, Riffyn, is building a platform that allows the visual design, analysis and collaboration on life sciences experiments using your browser. It’s been called a GitHub for biomanufacturing.
When Analogies Fail
Biology enabled life on planet earth. As Carlson says in the opening to Biology is Technology, “biology is the oldest technology.”
But we are amateurs in the use of engineering biology to manufacture. In contrast, metallurgy dates back some 7,000 years. It took more than 80 years to go from the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk to first commercial aircraft to be designed entirely with computer-aided design – Boeing’s 777. In addition, the infrastructure for engineering biology is minuscule compared to say, the oil industry.
While we use the analogy of the computer and the impact that it has had on society for the last 50 years, the analogy breaks down when you try to compare computers, which were designed by man to perform very specific functions, to living systems that by their very nature are designed to evolve.
It is not clear which analogy will dominate for synthetic biology, but what is clear from the advances in new technologies in just the last ten years, and from our faster, better, cheaper abilities to read and write DNA – the instructions of life – is that biology is becoming easier to engineer.