Placeholder Banner

Synthetic Biology as Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology

March 26, 2018
Editor’s Note: As part of BIO’s 25th Anniversary celebration we will be spotlighting biotechnology innovations that have made a major impact over the past 25 years. This “Innovation Series” will publish on the 25th of every month throughout 2018. In the third installment we spotlight environment and industrial biotechnology. 

Chances are you use at least one product every day that can be, or is, made using synthetic biology.  In fact, you probably used one of these products this morning. For example, in shampoos, the renewable chemical that makes the thick gel turn to soapy foam, known as a surfactant, can be made using synthetic biology.

But, what is synthetic biology?

In broad terms, synthetic biology represents an extension of the genetic engineering advances that the biotechnology industry has used safely for more than 40 years in developing commercial products. Most often, companies use synthetic biology techniques to build new metabolic processes that are not found in nature.

Over the past 25 years, biotechnology companies -- both BIO members and non-members alike -- have identified opportunities to incorporate synthetic biology in groundbreaking advances in industrial biotechnology manufacturing processes. Companies have begun using the science to optimize the processes for producing renewable chemicals, biobased products, and biofuels. With synthetic biology techniques, industrial biotechnology companies can save time by shortening the number of steps used in traditional processes, and money, while developing new products. They can also reduce the products’ impact on the environment.

For example, at the 2017 BIO International Convention in San Diego, Synthetic Genomics and Exxon Mobil announced a breakthrough in their research on biofuels from algae. The two partners discovered that through synthetic biology they could engineer an algae strain and double its production of oil without compromising its growth. This technique allows for more efficient production of algae biofuels, decreasing production costs and time. According to their latest release, the partners are continuing their research while suggesting that their modified algae could lead to 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel a day by 2025.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, along with DuPont Industrial Biosciences, have been researching synthetic biology as means to reduce the environmental impact of making synthetic rubber. The two companies have created a biological process for microorganisms to make isoprene, a key chemical component in the production of synthetic rubber. Isoprene is normally found as a usable energy source only in plants, making it a limited resource. Using synthetic biology, however, GoodYear and DuPont no longer need to rely on plant matter to make isoprene, potentially meeting demand for rubber products without relying on land-intensive cultivation of rubber trees.

The biotechnology company Manus Bio has also been able to reduce its footprint on the environment through synthetic biology. The company engineered a bacterium that produces a coveted compound found within the stevia plant that can be used in zero-calorie sweeteners. Conventional methods extract only a fraction of the sweet-tasting compound from the plant, and they often use caustic chemicals. By using synthetic biology to engineer a bacterium that mimicked the plant’s process for making the compound, however, the company was able to synthetically produce the compound with 95 percent purity. Manus Bio plans to start commercially manufacturing the product and selling to industrial partners in 2018.

The benefits of synthetic biology also apply to the production of drugs for human health. Lumen Biosciences is a biotechnology company that has begun using spirulina – an algae strain widely used as a health supplement – to produce antibodies for infants that mimic those found in colostrum (breast milk). These antibodies protect against intestinal pathogens, which can have long-term health impacts -- such as malnutrition, developmental disabilities and infections -- that especially impact children in the developing world. The company announced in early 2018 that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had awarded Lumen a grant to continue its research into the spirulina platform, with the hopes of one day being able to use the antibody to protect developing world infants from intestinal pathogens.

Codexis, another biotechnology company looking to synthetic biology to benefit human health, worked with researchers at UCLA to produce simvastatin -- a cholesterol-lowering drug. The researchers knew that an enzyme commonly found in soil – called LovD –  could react and produce a drug similar to chemically-produced simvastatin; however, the rate of reaction was too low for large-scale manufacturing.  After nine rounds and 29 distinct mutations, the scientists were able to create a new form of the enzyme, which they called LovD9. LovD9 produces simvastatin 1,000 times more efficiently than the natural enzyme (LovD9) and does not require the use of toxic chemicals or excess solvents. As a result, the scientists and researchers discovered a new process for making the popular cholesterol-lowering drug with less impact on the environment.

Other companies advancing synthetic biology include LanzaTech, who uses the science to create the renewable chemical biobutanol – commonly used in lacquers and enamels – from inorganic carbon, such as carbon monoxide. Newlight Technologies is turning greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into high molecular weight bioplastics, such as polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). Newlight’s process is being scaled-up to be used in IKEA’s affordable bioplastics consumer products. Additionally, Cargill and Calysta Biosystems are working jointly to convert another greenhouse gas, methane, into fish food.

As the application and understandings around synthetic biology continue to broaden over the next 25 years and beyond, BIO will continue to work with industry to advance the science.

Each year, BIO hosts the annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, which provides a platform for industry leaders to partner and share insights with each other on innovations such as synthetic biology. And, this year’s BIO World Congress in Philadelphia from July 16-19 couldn’t take place in a better location. The tri-state region (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) ranks as one of the top markets for biotechnology research. So don’t miss out. Just like Synthetic Genomics’ announcement at convention last year, you never know what new breakthroughs could make an appearance at BIO’s events.