Changing Dynamic: Synthetic Biology Comes of Age

Often people associate biotechnology with end products — think advanced biofuels or new medicines.

But synthetic biology, a tool within biotechnology, has the potential to advance manufacturing processes. Increasingly in the United States, small start-up companies are forming partnerships to expand applications of synthetic biology for just such purposes.

With a current worth of $600 million, the global synthetic biology research market could grow to $3.5 billion over the next decade, according to Beachhead Consulting, a Utah-based life sciences company.

In a recent article for the scientific journal Organic Process Research & Development, BIO’s Dr. Rina Singh delved into the progress that has taken place in synthetic biology. Dr. Singh, the director of policy for BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section, identifies several recent examples of how synthetic biology has aided in the innovative manufacture of biofuels and the development of biological processes for the manufacture of bulk and fine chemicals.

What Singh found is that innovation and competitiveness often are tied to the ability to rapidly and predictably repeat a process to obtain optimum outcomes. Based on this review, it’s clear that synthetic biology offers manufacturing solutions that can help address some of the world’s most critical challenges.

Singh cites several successes. Here are three:

At Genencor: This division of Danisco U.S. has worked with Goodyear Tire & Rubber on a synthetic biology process to create the BioIsoprene monomer and produce tires made of synthetic rubber. Currently, synthetic rubber is derived entirely from petrochemical sources.

At Metabolix: This small industrial biotech company partnered with agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland to develop a family of bioplastics products under the brand name Mirel. These plastics are based on polyhydroxyalkanoates, a broad family of biopolymers made through the fermentation of sugar that can be biodegraded by the microbes present in natural soil and water environments. The Mirel plant in Iowa began commercial production early last year and can now produce 110 million pounds of bioplastics annually.

At Modular Genetics: This company, which developed an automated gene-engineering tool, crafted a micro-organism that converts soybean hulls into a surfactant for use in personal care products and other formulations. The United States produces about 70 billion pounds of indigestible soy carbohydrate annually, and Modular Genetics’ goal is to convert this material into other useful chemical products.

Still to Come

“Synthetic biology holds the promise of allowing us to write entire pathways, or genomes, to create routes to production of valuable biochemicals, biopolymers, therapeutics and performance materials,” Singh says. “As with prior technology revolutions, it also should spawn entire new industries.”

But as with all emerging industries, there are challenges. As Singh points out, to reap the full benefits of a global biobased economy, societies will need to set policies, develop legal frameworks and provide public education.

The Obama administration understands this as well, and a presidential commission has issued its first report on the topic, “New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.”