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The Many Definitions of Synthetic Biology

June 17, 2015
Today, June 16, 2015, attendees had access to several robust sessions during our Industrial & Environmental program at BIO 2015. Panelists during the second breakout session, Industrial Biotech’s Mighty Microbes Provide Cleaner and Greener Futurediscussed where we came from and where we are today with the technologies to improve how everyday products are made. Specifically, the panel spoke on how they or their companies have used synthetic biology to make better and greener products for consumers.

Kevin Jarrell, CEO of Modular Genetics, moderated this session, which included Joel Cherry, President of Research & Development at Amyris, Emmanuel Petiot, CEO of Deinove, and Kristala Prather, Associate Professor at MIT.

Kristala Prather's remarked on the findings of the Industrialization of Biology:  A Roadmap to Accelerate Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals, report sponsored by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. Working at the interface of synthetic chemistry, metabolic engineering, molecular biology, and synthetic biology, Industrialization of Biology, identifies key technical goals for next-generation chemical manufacturing, then identifies the gaps in knowledge, tools, techniques, and systems required to meet those goals, and targets and timelines for achieving them. 

Prather argued that while the definition of synthetic biology has grown throughout the years, the report defines it as a newer discipline that seeks to deliver greater speed, cost-effectiveness and predictability to the design of biological systems. The report states that biobased products are already significant in the U.S. and the marketplace. The report showed that if we have the ability to accelerate this technology then we will be able to make more biobased products. Prather also commented that the science of synthetic biology is advancing and industry is ready to move with it.

Prather concluded her remarks by discussing the roadmap goals laid out in the report which include improving feedstock sustainability and availability, reducing waste, improving fermentation & processing, increasing predictability, designing a more effective food chain, having better access to catalysts, expanding the palette of domestic microbial and cell free platforms, and testing the measurement of how pathways are accelerating.

CEO of Modular Genetics, Kevin Jarrell opened his remarks by stating that for Modular Genetics the definition of synthetic biology is analogous to the definition of synthetic chemistry and that synthetic biology is technology created when advanced computer science is link with advance molecular biotechnology tools. Modular's specialty is the design and development of engineered microorganisms that synthesize chemicals using cheap renewable raw materials, like sugar. 

Jarrell stated that 13 million metric tons of surfactants are made annually and that it in 2009 it was a 25 billion market. Within this market, surfactants are largely used in detergents and personal care products.

He remarked that currently surfactants are made from oil, either petroleum or fatty oils. Surfactant manufacturing today does not use renewable raw materials, it uses chemical processes which are hazardous, it can have environmental toxins and it can be contaminated with carcinogens.

Modular Genetics is changing the future of the surfactant manufacturing process.  Their surfactants use raw renewable materials, i.e. cellulosic sugar, no chemical processes and only fermentation. They are biodegradable because they are composed of fatty or amino acids and the potential for contamination with carcinogens is significantly reduced.

Joel Cherry, President of R&D at Amyris, spoke on the company's proprietary yeast technology. He stated that yeast was the first microbe ever fermented , the most widely used microbe on planet (fuel, beer, wine, etc.), and it's the most genetically tractable. His company sees the definition of synthetic biology as applying traditional engineering principles to the design of microbes. Cherry spoke on his company's automated yeast strain engineering which feeds cellulosic sugar to yeast microbes which are then converted to drop in materials. The materials are then used in artemisinic acid, farnensene, fragrances oils and isoprene for such things as tires.

The final panelist, Emmanuel Petiot, CEO of Deinove, spoke on how his company uses bacteria to create greener and better products for consumers. Deinove is a French biotech company whose mission is to replace petroleum based molecules in products with biobased alternatives. Petiot noted that the bacteria used by his company is Deinococccys bacteria, great work with but limited amount of pre-existing data. Deinove's technology is in house and includes such tools as genetic engineering, fermentation, and collection. He commented on several industrial advantages to using bacteria - reduced production costs, high-yield process, stable and reproducible productions systems, reduced energy consumption and rare or technologically efficient. Denoive's products include alcohol and foundation for biobased personal care items such as cosmetics. He concluded his talk by stating that his technology is cleaner and more cost efficient as it uses second generation feedstocks.