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#BIOWC16: An Overview of the Synthetic Biology Track

April 19, 2016
Design. Build. Test. Learn. That has been the mantra for companies presenting in the Synthetic Biology track at the 13th annual BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology. Synthetic biology is an extension of the continuum of innovation in genetic engineering. This emerging field of research, development and commercialization of new biotechnology products applies the rigor of traditional engineering and computer science to life science applications.

One of the first sessions of the World Congress adopted a bold proposal, “Pushing the Boundaries of Advanced Manufacturing.” The panel included a representative from IKEA, the home furnishing manufacturer. IKEA aims to establish a more sustainable supply chain of materials for their home furnishings – because that is what their customers are demanding. The company made a point of saying they were here at the BIO World Congress seeking partners who could help them establish that supply chain.

Bob Walsh, Senior Vice President with Intrexon, moderated the panel and discussed how the “design, build, test, learn” mantra applied to his company’s research. Intrexon is commercializing a biofuel process that uses methanotrophs – microbes that consume methane as their food. These microbes are not as well characterized as the industry workhorses, yeast and E. coli. So Intrexon had to build its own genomic toolbox from the start.

Also on the panel was Reuben Sarkar, who oversees DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Sustainable Transportation initiative. Sarkar discussed DOE’s efforts to establish a “synthetic biology foundry.” The DOE project will add to the genomic toolbox available to companies producing advanced biofuels.

Continuing the design, build, test, learn theme, the second day’s lunch plenary featured “young stars” of industrial biotechnology, each of whom are building companies based on synthetic biology applications. The lunch panel included Lygos Technologies, which is commercializing malonic acid produced via yeast fermentation; Bolt Thread, which is commercializing spider silk thread and materials, also produced through yeast; and Ginkgo Bioworks, which produces and licenses new microbes for fermentation processes. The panelists discussed their vision for rapid commercialization of new products and growth of their businesses, powered by synthetic biology and the new tools being developed with the science.

As evidence of the growth,  Ginkgo Bioworks announced at the World Congress that it had hired Peter Boynton as Chief Commercialization Officer and industry veteran John Pierce as an advisor.

With the popularity of the synthetic biology track, the design, build, test, learn mantra is likely to continue to be heard at the World Congress.