Synthetic biology grew from a very old human desire to engineer living systems and make them do useful things for us.
As genetic engineering of the 1970s has evolved into synthetic biology today, the technologies and economics for sequencing (reading) and synthesizing (writing) DNA have become optimized for large-scale DNA processing. This allows synthetic biologists to design and modify the genetics of living systems so that they produce a wide variety of materials for us that don’t occur in nature, such as drugs, biofuels, flavors, fragrances and more.
The field is garnering the attention of entrepreneurs and investors -- here are some things you should know that help explain why.
1. The growing "Bioeconomy." Domestic revenues in the U.S. from genetically modified systems are growing faster than the economy as a whole, weighing in at approximately 10 percent annually, according to Rob Carlson, principal at Biodesic and bioeconomic consultant to The White House. The Genetically Modified Domestic Product in 2012 (GMDP) was $350 billion, or roughly 2.5 percent of GDP, up $50 billion from 2010.
The Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars concluded in its 2013 findings on the growth of synthetic biology that “the number of entities conducting research in synthetic biology increased significantly between 2009 and 2013, resulting in a total of 508 unique entities in the 2013 inventory.” The number of synthetic biology companies has also more than tripled in that timeframe, growing from 61 to 192. Market research shows that the global synthetic biology market was valued at $1.1 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016. The market’s expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is 45.8 percent.
“Although synthetic biology is still in the very early experimental phase, it could become the defining technology of the 21st century," says Fidelity Investments fixed-income analyst Rob Chan in a video, "bringing with it radical new thinking, new questions and new opportunities, because nothing has the power to change how we live more than changing life itself.”
2. The shrinking cost of the sequenced genome. Why the growth? The cost of sequencing DNA has been plummeting since “next generation” sequencers hit the market in 2007. It did so at a rate that far surpassed Moore’s Law -- the rule that says computing power doubles and gets cheaper about every two years. However, as Carlson explains on his blog, the most up-to-date data shows that the cost curves are no longer exponentially decreasing. This is likely a healthy reflection of the fact that the companies involved are not losing revenues.
Despite the recent gradual slope, the exponential drop in DNA sequencing ushered in projects that would have been laughably ambitious just a few years earlier. The Human Genome Project was a massively expensive undertaking that took place between 1990 and 2003, involving more than 200 scientists and $3 billion to read the roughly 3 billion bases of DNA in each and every one of us. Today, thanks to the drop in sequencing price per base and grant funding from the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, the awards for the last round of funding to achieve the $1,000 human genome will be granted this year. It’s not here yet, but it is on its way.
3. Increased support from public and private sources. In 2004, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation helped put synthetic biology on the map when it granted $42 million to the University of California at Berkeley, the Institute for OneWorld Health, and the California-based Amyris Biotechnologies for the research and development of an antimalarial synthetic drug called artemisinin. Ten years later, the UK boldly named synthetic biology as one of the “Eight Great Technologies” that will accelerate economic growth this century and have allocated about $265 million for its development and commercialization.
4. The DIY community. Synthetic biology has attracted a community of biohackers, also known as DIY biologists. They work outside of institutional labs and do their experiments in homemade or community labs with the aim to democratize biotechnology. The typical biohacker lab does not receive institutional financing and makes its money through membership fees, donations and classes. Some community labs have received government grants, such as La Paillase in France, which recently expanded to the Philippines and Ireland.
Although biohackers are not at all times explicitly working with synthetic biology, they are closely coupled to the synthetic biology community and work flexibly across traditional and emerging biotechnologies.
“Biohackers have found extremely creative things to do with the tools they possess," said Dr. Matthew Bennet, professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University. "I was particularly impressed with the brilliant simplicity of some of their ideas -- such as creating [non-synthetic] 'bio-ink' (ink for drawing and painting that is naturally produced by bacteria). Those of us in academia would never have thought of that because we are always searching for the next big breakthrough. Now they can take what we have learned in research and dream up novel applications.”
Some biohackers are commercializing their applications and creating a cottage industry of their own. For more information, visit diybio.org.
5. Opening the field. Bill Liao, investment partner at SOS Ventures, has launched several technology companies. Now Liao is investing in synthetic biology startups by running an accelerator program.
“It has become clear that biological technology is going to have its best shot at forward progress by adopting the same protocols of open standardization and the sharing of information and proven computer code,” he said.
Liao said he believes that synthetic biology has enormous potential to operate as an open science, which companies such as Synbiota are trying to push forward. As a result, Liao has created the Synbio Axlr8r, a startup accelerator program happening this spring and summer in Cork, Ireland. SOS Ventures will provide seed funding of almost $60,00 to each accepted startup.
Related: Next Up in Health Tech: DNA Hacking