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SEED 2016: Synbio Industry Coming of Age

As our third SEED2016 post, I’m focusing on the commercial industry presence at the conference. This year SEED showcased the burgeoning synthetic biology industry. 25% of speakers came from industry and 18 sponsors chipped in to make the conference happen. The field of synthetic biology is maturing and beginning to take hold in industrial applications. To get a sense of the breadth of the industry in 2015 check out our 2015 review “SynBio is Booming“, Synbiobeta on the growth in venture funding for synthetic biology companies in 2015, and Nature reporting on how synthetic biology is gaining Silicon Valley investors.

The SEED  session dedicated to synbio industry was titled “An Emerging SynBio Industry” and it featured speakers on applications for therapeutics, sustainability, and improved biological design. The speakers represented companies from across the synthetic biology in size and application area.

Synlogic lead off the industry session with its development of synthetic biotics. This currently takes the form of engineered probiotic E. coli Nissle to do metabolic transformations that a diseased human gut may be deficient in. The company was founded in 2013 by Jim Collins and Tim Lu (both currently of MIT but formerly of Boston University). This approach could provide a new type of ‘smart’ drug where an engineered microbe is the delivery method that adapts to the patient.

On the bio-manufacturing side, Genomatica used synthetic biology parts, including ssrA degradation tags from the parts registry, to optimize1,4-butanediol (BDO) production strains. They managed to commercialize a BDO strain in 5 years from proof-of-concept to their GENO BDO process. This is shows how well characterized parts can continue to be used in projects beyond their original goal.

Autodesk offered a cloud-based tool for synthetic biology design. The newly released genetic constructor is meant to provide an open-source CAD tool that can interface with biological foundries set up to do large synthetic biology projects. The design tool also allows the design of typical synthetic biology constructs with standardized parts.

Other companies presented their platforms to help enable synthetic biology researchers with faster, cheaper, or better options for genetic parts. Axel Trefzser from ThermoFisher Scientific covered their services for synthetic biologists. They offer a wide variety of products including gene synthesis, CRISPR services, and cloning tools. More and more companies are competing to offer these services which is good news for synthetic biologists. Agilent’s Joel Myerson showed off their chemically modified guide RNAs for CRISPR-Cas9. The RNA chemistry TC protecting group overcame some key challenges and helps improve effieciency with co-delivered RNA that doesn’t require DNA delivery (see publication and company website.

DNA synthesis and construction are major areas for industry that will help transform the synthetic biology field. Lots of new activity in DNA synthesis is trying to push the technology to enable faster and cheaper construction of synthetic DNA. See our previous post on synthetic human genomes as a possible milestone for the community. Now, Gingko Bioworks has purchased 400 million bases of synthetic DNA from Gen9 & Twist Bioscience to build up their pathway optimization. Twist was present as a Gold sponsor and gave a lunch break presentation on their technology for affordable large scale DNA synthesis.

We also got to see some new industrial applications of synthetic biology. For instance, LanzaTech is trying to use synbio tools to recycle carbon waste. Its bioprocessing platform is trying to take carbon captured waste and use it for other fuels or chemicals. Carbon re-use is not usually the top application synthetic biologists think of but it’s important to see new areas where engineering biology can make a global impact.

After the industry, talks there was an industry mixer to give time for socializing with attendees to learn more about what’s happening at these companies. Many of the companies also had poster presentations or tables where attendees could learn more about the technical capabilities. I got to talk to many industry people including learning about the commercialized TX-TL cell-free expression system (see last SEED post focusing on cell-free), and I learned a lot about a system that I had considered purchasing but wanted more information.

It was good to see a good number of companies represented at SEED this year. The commercial synthetic biology industry is starting to find the areas that it can make the most impact and is building off of the technological advancements and refinements. I’m sure we’ll see even more impressive advancements at SEED in 2017.


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