The Big Opportunities and Challenges of Synthetic Biology

Comments Off on The Big Opportunities and Challenges of Synthetic Biology
The Big Opportunities and Challenges of Synthetic Biology

As with any revolutionary new technology, synthetic biology is unleashing a raging torrent of issues.

Synthetic biology is the application of information technology to biology in order to design and build living things. By engineering genes, researchers are working to create microbes that will manufacture useful products such as drugs, food, specialty chemicals, cosmetics, clothing, and fuel. The most notable achievement thus far is the engineering of yeast cells to synthesize drugs that fight malaria, a disease that kills an estimated 660,000 people worldwide each year.

According to industry experts, the benefits from synthetic biology will include:

  • The ability to raise crops using fewer pesticides
  • Greater food security
  • Improved nutrition
  • Livestock that produce medications
  • Better sources of biofuels from organisms such as algae
  • New ways to target infectious diseases and cancer

While we have explored synthetic biology in previous issues of Trends and in the book Ride the Wave, what is new is that the technology is advancing even more rapidly than in the past, bringing a new level of efficiency that was unimaginable just a few years ago.1

Software tools are enabling the process to be digitized. Robotics is taking over tasks that were too tedious and time consuming for biologists.

The result of all this automation and digitization is (as is often the case) a huge drop in costs. Laboratories that use robots can operate 24/7 while eliminating the cost of human workers. Machine learning helps the programs that guide research efforts to devise increasingly more efficient ways to perform processes. In addition, software can record all of the details of experiments autonomously, making research far more efficient and more reliable.

This progress has not gone unnoticed by technology investors. Venture capital funds poured a record $560 million into synthetic biology firms in 2015, a year in which 24 new companies attracted funding, up from just six in 2012. According to an article in the journal Nature, the investors are “lured by what they see as synthetic biology’s huge market potential, plummeting operating costs, improved business models, and an increasing emphasis on computing.”2

For example, Matt Ocko, an early investor in Facebook and Zynga, is among the investors in Gingko Bioworks, which focuses on microbial engineering.

PayPal cofounders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin invested in Bolt Threads, which engineers yeast cells so they will make high-performance fibers in the same way that spiders create silk...

To continue reading, become a paid subscriber for full access.
Already a Trends Magazine subscriber? Login for full access now.

Subscribe for as low as $195/year

  • Get 12 months of Trends that will impact your business and your life
  • Gain access to the entire Trends Research Library
  • Optional Trends monthly CDs in addition to your On-Line access
  • Receive our exclusive "Trends Investor Forecast 2015" as a free online gift
  • If you do not like what you see, you can cancel anytime and receive a 100% full refund