Sunday, May 17, 2009

Synthetic biology – what is next?

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology, re-designing existing biological systems and designing new ones, for a myriad of purposes. The most obvious killer apps are the improved synthesis of drugs and other medicines and the synthetic generation of biofuels.

Right now the most exciting aspect of synthetic biology –suggesting that the field is getting some traction – is that three key community constituents are getting more heavily involved: traditional academic researchers (SB 4.0 conference videos and agenda), undergraduates and high school students through the annual iGEM (international genetically engineered machines) competition (1200 students from 112 teams are expected at this fall’s iGEM Jamboree at MIT, and a growing group of non-institutionally affiliated enthusiasts, diybio’ers, the 2000s version of the Homebrew Computer Club, for both wetlab (an interesting recent example) and computer modeling, simulation and data management projects.

Venture capitalists are slowly starting to realize that synthetic biology could be a huge growth industry and could be the next generation of biotechnology. Amyris is probably the best-known synthetic biology company, estimating to launch its biofuel (ethanol) business publicly in Brazil and the US in 2011.

The long road to automation
Other waves in the history of biotechnology have shown that life sciences problems tend to be much more complex, take much longer than expected to solve and ultimately underdeliver results. There is no reason to think that synthetic biology would be any different, but it is obviously not futile to work on the challenges. When the synbio community analogizes their status to the heterogeneous screws and bolts of the construction industry circa 1864, they are not kidding.
The DNA synthesis process is astonishingly unautomated, unstandardized and expensive ($0.50-$1.00 per base pair) at present (it would be $15-30 billion to synthesize the full genome of a human (ignoring ethical, legal, etc. issues)).
Synthetic biology is a new field and the demand for synthesized DNA is still small; the 2,000 or so iGEM community members are the biggest market. Ginkgo Bioworks is working to deliver robotic synthesized DNA assembly and other startups would be likely to spring up in this area. Ginkgo has also helped to expand and improve one of the main synbio tools, the Registry of Standard Biological Parts.

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