Synthetic Biology – The ticket to a sustainable future!

The Department of Biotechnology published in February 2022 a forward-looking document on synthetic biology. This document highlights the policy and regulatory aspects of the field around the world and lays the foundation for future policy on synthetic biology. As we enter the third decade of synthetic biology, the world has a chance to rethink its future. Synthetic biology can lead us towards a more equitable, sustainable and inclusive future by replacing reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels.

Synthetic biology is the engineering of natural biological systems such as bacteria, yeasts and fungi, plants as well as animals to produce desired results or products. There are two broad ways to achieve this: (A) the design and construction of new biological components, devices, and systems, and (B) the redesign of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes.

The first ideas about synthetic biology took shape in the early 2000s: characterizing the genetic sequences that perform the necessary functions, identifying the “parts”, combining the parts into devices to perform more complex functions, and then inserting the devices into the cells. The first generation of synthetic biology from 2000 to 2010 saw researchers develop a few of these parts and circuits which were published in the Registry of Standard Biological Parts and OpenWetWare. At the end of the decade, the market had some major issues: reliability, standardization and automation of design. This period also saw the emergence of several companies, the United States in the lead. The first generation of synthetic biology companies of the early 2000s such as Evolva and Amyris were comprehensive companies focusing on a singular product line such as biofuels. However, many of these companies have failed in their quest to do it all themselves – DNA design, organism engineering, fermentation and downstream manufacturing and processing.

The following decade (2010-2020) saw the emergence of companies with platform technologies offering ‘synthetic biology as a service’. These include companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks (launched earlier in 2008), Zymergen and Twist Bioscience which have all found success selling modified organisms and nucleic acids for multiple applications. Divide and Conquer was the new rulebook to follow:

With companies having specific focus areas, technology development has intensified and expanded at a rapid pace, leading to key breakthroughs. A design-build-test-learn cycle has been implemented: computer-aided nucleotide design, synthesis and testing of DNA/RNA and modified organisms using technologies such as CRISPR, synthesis of oligo in pool, next-generation sequencing (NGS) and microfluidic devices and finally storing the data and training machine learning algorithms to speed up the design process. All of this ultimately led to two key breakthroughs:

  1. A significant drop in the cost of DNA synthesis and sequencing
  2. Faster design of genomic sequences leading to a significant increase in the number of synthetic genomes.

Investor sentiment

The undeniable potential of synthetic biology to impact multiple markets, driven by the declining costs of DNA sequencing and synthesis, has spurred the private finance ecosystem to action. From a measly $100 million in 2010, investments have exceeded $18 billion in 2021. This figure is quite bullish considering that there are still few commercial products on the market today. Investor sentiment has shifted over the years, with investments increasing more than 10 times since 2010, coinciding with critical technology milestones reached between 2010 and 2020.

Second-generation companies providing “synthetic biology as a service” such as Gingko Bioworks, Twist Bioscience and Zymergen, which have seen several hundred million dollars of private investment, have gone public. The exit valuations (for early investors) of these companies were more than 100 times their annual revenues. Investments in healthcare and food companies using synthetic biology have skyrocketed since 2020. A total of $7.4 billion has been invested in healthcare and $3.4 billion in food companies alone. ‘in 2021, figures equivalent to the total investments in these areas over the years.

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