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Biotech Companies Find Solutions through Synthetic Biology

July 21, 2015
Several small companies presented their business models and milestones in the New and Innovative Technological Advances breakout session during the opening day of BIO’s World Congress. Each of the companies started out seeking an alternative to petroleum as a raw material for plastics and other polymers used in everyday household products. Additionally, these companies were united in finding unique solutions to scientific challenges through synthetic biology approaches.

Eric Althoff, CBO of ten-year-old Arzeda, described his companies approach to computational design of enzymes. One of Arzeda’s challenges was to find a cleaner method of producing sebacic acid, a building block for Nylon 6,10. The traditional chemical approach to manufacturing this widely used chemical involved a lead-based catalyst, presenting a challenge in containing the lead. A biotech process would eliminate the challenge; so Arzeda designed a metabolic pathway to produce sebacic acid through fermentation.

Fredric Paques, COO of Global Bioenergies, described his company’s quest to generate biobased isobutene, an olefin that is traditionally made by cracking petroleum naphtha. Global Bioenergies engineered a microbe that can ferment natural gas to produce the desired chemical. They previously demonstrated pilot scale production in a partnership with Arkema and are currently scaling the process up to 100 million liters per year.

Jack Silverman, CSO of Calysta, described his company’s efforts to capture methane and ferment it into isoprene, a building block for polymers used in tires and other useful products. He was followed by Sean Simpson of Lanzatech, which has developed a process for capturing the carbon emissions from industrial manufacturers – such as steel mills -- and recycling them into 2,3 butanediol, which is another building block for tires. The microbe that Lanzatech identified would normally capture the carbon emissions and use it to create additional biomass. Synthetic biology provided these companies a toolset to re-engineer the microbes to provide useful chemical production pathways.

Bruce Dannenberg, founder and CSO of Phytonix, described his company’s process for photosynthesizing n-butanol. The company identified a blue-green algae organism (a cyanobacteria) that captures atmospheric CO2 and engineered it convert the carbon to useful chemicals.

All of the companies initially focused on finding alternatives to use of petroleum or to use of other hazardous processes. In researching solutions, they found synthetic biology provided the right set of tools to accomplish the task, in a way that traditional biotechnology or chemical engineering couldn’t.