How cells engineered to make everything from medicine to perfume will change the way we see our world

How cells engineered to make everything from medicine to perfume will change the way we see our world

Journalists taste test the plant based hamburgers during a media tour of Impossible Foods labs and processing plant in Redwood City, California, U.S. October 6, 2016.   REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach

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  • Synthetic biology, or the ability to use a cell to produce something beyond its intended purpose, is starting to have a bigger impact in our day-to-day lives, whether we realize it or not.
  • As funding pours into the space, the reality of having microbes that are able to produce substances they might not normally is becoming cheaper and more readily available.
  • "It's now becoming increasingly ready for the prime time," Synthetic Genomics CEO Oliver Fetzer told Business Insider. "It's no longer an academic toy."

Microscopic organisms that have been engineered to produce different material could one day be part of your daily life - and you might not even notice.

People debate the definition, but at its core synthetic biology is the ability to design organisms to do something they wouldn't otherwise do. For example, that could be excreting a new drug, using yeast to create a new fragrance, or even producing silk for a tie.

In the past few years, synthetic biology has gained a lot of interest. Tech venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz launched a $450 million biotech-focused fund that will in part be looking to fund new ways to use biology, including using synthetic DNA. And Ginkgo Bioworks, a startup that designs microbes to produce things like fragrances or to create medications,raised $275 million in December 2017, valuing the company at $1.3 billion.

Synthetic biology is based on the idea that we can now program cells to do what we want. In that way, it's like computer code, except for instead of 1s and 0s, it's A, T, C, and G, the building blocks that make up DNA.


"If you can read and write code, you're programming, and it just so happens that this is another form of digital code," Ginkgo Bioworks CEO Jason Kelly told Business Insider.

In the past two decades, scientists have figured out how to take genetic engineering - the ability to modify genes in an organism, such as inserting bacteria genes in corn to protect it from pests - and use it to get organisms to produce something they might not have otherwise. As sequencing technology's and the ability to produce DNA have gotten better, the applications of synthetic biology have started to expand beyond the experimental stage.

Ultimately, the impact synthetic biology has on the world could be incredibly far reaching.

"If you're in physical goods, you're a biotech company, you just don't know it yet," Kelly said.

Under-the-radar advancements

For the most part, the impact of synthetic biology has so far been behind the scenes. One of the projects Synthetic Genomics is working on is finding ways to program cells to make monoclonal antibodies in a simpler way than is currently done.


Monoclonal antibodies are the basis for many biologic drugs. Currently, these drugs are manufactured using genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells. In the end, if a drug is approved that comes from the cells Synthetic Genomics made, a patient might not know, in the same way they might not know they're getting a treatment produced by hamster ovary cells.

"If your doctor prescribes a medicine today, I think most patients don't really spend to much time thinking about, 'Was that medicine made by a Chinese hamster ovary cell that was heavily genetically modified?' I don't think that many patients will have any appreciation of what happened behind the scenes to give them their specific medicine that the doctor prescribes to them," Fetzer said.

The hope, though, is that this will help make treatments a lot easier to control and ideally cheaper to produce - and in turn cheaper for patients.

But consumer applications are starting to catch on as well.

So far, the clearest example of this has been by engineering brewer's yeast to make different scents. In September, Ginkgo formed a $100 million joint venture with Bayer to develop microbes that could lead to more sustainable agriculture practices, and the company's working with a biotech company called Synlogic to engineer probiotics as well.


As the cost to re-engineer microbes comes down, the applications have a shot of extending beyond medications into products you might encounter day-to-day. For example, one company is using synthetic biology to make silk ties, while Impossible Burger uses engineered yeast to produce the ingredient in the plant-based burger that gives it its bloody, burger-like taste.

And soon, that lower cost is going to bring these products from experimental use to mainstream markets.

"It's now becoming increasingly ready for the prime time," Fetzer said. "It's no longer an academic toy."

Far-reaching potential

Synthetic biology has already had a major impact on medicine, but the hope is that it can go even further, by making personalized treatments available to more people, Fetzer said.

Beyond that, Kelly's theory is that no industry that makes physical goods will be spared from the effects of synthetic biology.


The scope of synthetic biology's impact can be incrediblE. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Tim Lu, who runs the Synthetic Biology Group, told Business Insider that the best way to think about it is to think about all the parts of day-to-day life that interact with biology.

"Everything in our life touches organisms," Lu said. So then when it comes to synthetic biology, the reach can be just as broad.

"Synthetic biology is giving us the capacity to modify and change the way we interact by adding efficiency and new capabilities."