Within a few years, synthetic biology has evolved from being a new player in the molecular biology and biotech arena to being a front-row contender with multiple industrial advances and large amounts of investor money.
There have been a number of definitions of synthetic biology, also known as synbio. Generally, it involves redesigning genetic systems or cells. Although there were some earlier uses of synthetic biology, the field really took off after the sequencing of the human genome in 2003. An early proponent of applying engineering principles to molecular biology in this way was Craig Venter, an American researcher and entrepreneur who created one of the first artificial chromosomes of a virus in 2003 and the first synthetic bacterial genome in 2008.
Since then, the field has advanced quickly thanks to convergent developments such as reductions in the cost of next-generation sequencing. Academic competitions such as iGEM — the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which began in 2003, have also helped to raise awareness of synthetic biology and to attract young pioneers to the field.
Evolution of an industry
Paul Freemont, a professor at Imperial College London, is a senior figure in synthetic biology in the UK as a founder of the university’s Centre for Synthetic Biology and the synbio accelerator SynbiCITE.
He believes an early stumbling block was how to define synthetic biology. “I used to go to meetings and the whole meeting would be around defining what synthetic biology is. The name doesn’t help, I think.”
According to Freemont, using a design, build, test, learn cycle has helped synthetic biology get to where it is today. “This is now building design into the whole process. Up until that point, people weren’t designing systems in a systemic nature, so that differentiated it.”
Commercial director of UK-based SynbiCITE, John Collins, thinks the advances in supercomputers and the broad availability of such technology have also contributed.
“The development of our computer technology and ways in which we can manipulate data and model and simulate it has come on eons… In the last 15 years, we’ve gone from not really being able to describe biology in very much detail, to a point where we can actually look at the human genome and start to manipulate the data so we can understand how we can edit it.”
John Cumbers, founder of the international synthetic biology network SynBioBeta, believes that the influx of engineers and computer scientists into the field of biology has a lot to do with the speed of development and changes seen over the last 10 years.
“For decades, biologists have been content with poor reproducibility. A new cadre of engineers is coming into the field of biology with the goal of making it easier to engineer life. They’re having a big impact, with strain engineering companies like Ginkgo and Zymergen applying cutting-edge tools to make more reliable organisms, and automation companies such as Labcyte and Berkeley Lights creating brand new platforms that allow for much better reproducibility. It is a very exciting time in the field.”
The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 triggered a wave of investments in the life sciences sector, including in synthetic biology, as emerging technologies such as messenger RNA vaccines captured imaginations. Another noticeable change in the last few years has been advances in non-health applications of synthetic biology such as food and industrial biotechnology.
“Even in the few years I have been working, I have seen a change from purely healthcare-focused applications of synthetic biology to solving problems in industry and consumer products,” explained Thomas Meany, director of London-based synthetic biology startup OpenCell.
For Freemont, the creation and manipulation of functional, synthetic yeast chromosomes has been the highlight of the last few years. “It’s really challenging our concepts about genome organization, big time. And I think that’s extraordinary.”
He believes this research has massive potential for industrial biotech. “You can get yeast strains that grow at 42 degrees, you can get yeast strains that are much more alcohol-tolerant, which could all have bioproduction opportunities.”
In addition to developing new and more useful strains of yeast, synthetic biology is currently being used by a number of companies to create non-health-related products. These include luxury artificial leather; mushroom materials for building; insulation, cloth, and fibers from genetically engineered spider silk; and food ingredients for animal or human consumption.
“Investors see the promise behind synbio being able to produce many molecules in a much more sustainable and efficient way. With synbio, any metabolic pathway is theoretically accessible and inventing molecules that can make a real difference will multiply,” said Emmanuel Petiot, former CEO of the French biotech Deinove. In 2020, the company launched a cosmetic skincare ingredient harvested from a strain of extremophile bacteria grown in vats.
“Even though there are still a clear number of roadblocks in terms of acceptance of the technology, things have improved to the point where people truly believe that it is an efficient and sound way to improve production level and hence commercial scalability of various compounds,” Petiot told me.
An exciting time for synthetic biology?
While the US is still very much the leader in the synthetic biology field, with the most companies and investment to date, Europe is slowly but surely catching up. The UK is ahead of the pack in Europe, followed by France, Switzerland, and Germany.
“I think the number of new companies in the field is staggering,” Cumbers told me. “The cost of starting a startup company has gone down dramatically and the number of startup accelerators such as Y Combinator and IndieBio are enabling that.”
In terms of venture capital funding, 2021 was the best year ever for synthetic biology companies; the global total was almost $18B, with the healthcare and food industries being the biggest attractions for investors.
“I think that investors are excited about the 10- and 50-year vision for where this field is going to go. A lot of Silicon Valley money is investing in synthetic biology because they see it as the next programmable matter. It’s a very exciting time to be investing and running a company in this area,” said Cumbers.
Hampus Jakobsson, General Partner at the climate tech venture fund Pale Blue Dot, forecast that “synbio will be a field to see completely new funding in the coming years. Just as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing got massive attention from commercial, venture capital, and national interests, so will synbio.”
Although Europe is definitely moving in the right direction, it seems that it has a long way to go to catch up with the US in terms of academic research, numbers of companies, and overall investment in the sector.
“Europe still lags behind the US considerably,” noted Meany. He believes this may be, at least partly, due to cultural differences. “The US is just a more entrepreneurial society. In the US, students will drop out of college and start a business. Investors will back burning passion and drive. In Europe, people just don’t do that.”
Petiot says the investment trends agree with this. “When you can raise €1–10M in Europe based on synbio technologies, you can raise several hundred million in the US. The gap needs to be somehow closed if Europe wants to rise as a real synbio power.”
Another, often overlooked player in synthetic biology is China. “They don’t just throw money at it like I think the Americans do. They really throw brainpower,” said Collins. “They’ll erect the buildings super fast, they’ll fill it with the best brains, they’ll give it all the equipment it needs and then, they’ll say, ‘right, go off and do, and let’s turn this around.’”
Meany also thinks China has a lot of potential. “It is probably the place that best combines entrepreneurial flair, funding, and a large integrated marketplace.”
There is no doubt the field will continue to develop and is changing rapidly. For example, the cost of creating synthetic DNA will almost certainly drop significantly, according to Freemont. He believes this will drive innovation in the same way that automation, increased efficiency, and lower costs of next-generation sequencing have done to date.
“In terms of where we are in the cycle, I think we are well off the hype and in the consolidation stage now,” emphasized Freemont. “Companies are buying each other and there are a lot of trade sales going on. There is a new value chain being produced in synbio and it’s beginning to consolidate itself into a proper, albeit new industry.”
This article was originally published in November 2018 and has since been updated; Cover image via Elena Resko; inline images via Shutterstock.