The Future is (Syn)Bio: How and when do we get there?

Last week, Philip and I attended a meeting with some of the pioneers and leaders of the synthetic biology field. They believe biology will be everywhere in the future, but how do we get ready for it?

Digital technologies are now present in almost all aspects of our lives. It seems obvious today that companies need to go digital in order to survive, but just five years ago, it wasn’t. The same will happen soon with the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, and companies need to start adapting now, as John Cumbers, founder of the synthetic biology hub Synbiobeta, writes in his book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?

Much like digitalization has reshaped all sorts of industries, with examples like Uber in the taxi industry or Instagram in the photography industry, biology is expected to overtake all sorts of fields. A lot of materials used in textiles, plastics or cosmetics are already manufactured, at least in part, using biological processes. Big names like Adidas have already jumped on the synbio train, partnering with the German company AMSilk to produce biodegradable silk sneakers using yeast.

The food industry could also change dramatically, for example with the advent of animal-free meat and milk. Mars, the famous manufacturer of snickers bars, just launched a project to design and produce an enzyme to help neutralize food toxins, using synthetic biology. And talking about information itself, DNA has the potential to store massive amounts of data, and biocomputers could overtake silicon-based computational algorithms.

Virtually anything could soon be manufactured using biology. But before we get there, there’s a few challenges that the synthetic biology field needs to solve first.

Synbio meeting last week at BlueYard’s office in Berlin (you can spot me in the front row taking notes!)

Biology is complex

Though we know the possibilities biology offers are theoretically infinite, the hard truth is that there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about it. “We’re still taking single gene circuits and trying to understand them in detail,” says Thomas Meany, co-founder and CEO of Cell-Free Technology, a company making open source biological tools.

But making all the necessary experiments to understand the intricate complexity of biological systems can be an arduous task, and a huge bottleneck. “We need automation and faster analytics to run hundreds of experiments at the time,” says Tim Fell, CEO of Synthace, a company developing a framework to automate experimental procedures across different equipment and tasks.

Most synbio companies come from academia, where everything is done manually,” explains Ali Afshar, co-founder of HackScience. His startup is seeking automate cell culture, which Afshar points out as the process in which most of the budget of a biology lab goes. “That’s not where the value is in synbio.

Making sense of data

Collecting and analyzing data is a big drawback in the development of new bioprocesses. One of the main challenges to speed up the whole process is the lack of a single, common framework to store and access all the data available.

Companies like 23andMe and big pharma like AstraZeneca or Novartis are sequencing the DNA of millions of people and accumulating data. This data is precious, but having it stored in silos makes no sense, you cannot learn from it,” says Maria Chatzou, CEO of Lifebit. Her startup provides open-source programming framework to make genomic data analysis.

Chatzou co-founded the company after realizing during her PhD in genomic data analysis, that 80% of the time was spent on computational tasks rather than actual research. She believes that sharing data will be the key to democratize synthetic biology and make it accessible to organizations of all sizes.

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining enormous traction at the moment in multiple applications, including medicine, and could also be of big help for synthetic biology when interpreting large amounts of data or making predictions for the design of new gene circuits or organisms. However, Chatzou reminds us that the quality of data and the processing it requires before actually being able to use AI is still the main bottleneck.

Scale up, price down

While researchers and engineers struggle with data and automation, an area where synbio has improved extremely fast is the development of faster and cheaper technology and hardware. In particular, DNA sequencing has experienced a huge reduction in terms of price and time, and will keep going down thanks to the technology being developed by companies like Oxford Nanopore or DNA electronics. Writing DNA could soon follow thanks to Twist Bioscience and DNA Script.

It’s easier for companies to enter the field of synbio now that tech is more affordable,” says Ali Afshar. “Hardware costs massively going down are making it possible for us to innovate in this field. That’s what leading the next wave of products.

Scaling up processes that are currently mostly done at the lab scale is certainly a challenge, but it’s what will make synbio a viable business. AMSilk, the company making Adidas’ biodegradable sneakers, is a great example for many to come. “The first kilogram cost about a million to produce,” says CEO Jens Klein. “We now sell our [recombinant silk] product at the ton scale to the cosmetic industry.

Andreas Jurgeit, Investment Director of the Life Science team of Merck Ventures, is optimistic that the field will get there in time. “It took 40-50 years for the transistor to scale. It will take another 20-30 years for synthetic biology to do the same.” He remarks that the companies that will make it possible are being founded today, and that it’s absolutely the right time to invest in the field.

Images via Arkela /Shutterstock; BlueYard; Synbiobeta; Perception7 /Shutterstock

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French Biotech Gets Together with L’Oréal to Clean up our Streets

Carbios and L’Oréal have had enough of the plastics bags and packaging littering our streets and will form a consortium for the bio-recycling of plastic on an industrial scale.

Today, you’ll struggle to walk along a street without seeing plastic bottles, bags, and wrappers dropped by the wayside… but thankfully, help is at hand. Carbios, a pioneer in the bioplasturgy field, has joined forces with cosmetics giant L’Oréal to tackle plastic pollution. The two companies will form a consortium that will work over five years to bring Carbios’ bio-recycling technology to market on an industrial scale.

Companies from any other sectors will be able to join the consortium. Fingers crossed this will signal a change in the way we use and produce plastics.

Each year, 8 million tons of plastic is dumped in the oceans, so it really is time to do something about plastic waste. Carbios has developed technology that, for the first time in history, will allow plastic to be recycled over and over again — all thanks to the natural action of the company’s special enzymes. Carbios is targeting plastics like polyethylene terephthalate and polylactic acid, which are commonly used for bottles, packaging and films.

Carbios incorporates enzymes into its plastics to ensure that they are 100% biodegradable.

Most plastic recycling processes rely on high temperatures and a lot of energy, but Carbios’ system simply uses enzymes to break down plastics into their original monomers. Once separated and purified, these same monomers can be re-used to produce new plastic — all without a costly recycling process.

The companies in the consortium will be the first to receive Carbios’ technology once it becomes available. L’Oréal will use the bio-plastic when it designs its new packaging, promoting it to many other companies and industries. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to protect the environment, and this consortium will also help boost the circular economy,” stated Philippe Thuvien, Packaging & Development VP at L’Oréal.

More and more, big firms like L’Oréal seem to interested in turning green. Coca-Cola and Danone are working with Dutch biotech Avantium to develop sustainable bottles and yogurt cups, while Audi is collaborating with the French Global Bioenergies for the production of renewable gasoline. Even Lego is working on making its famous toys with bioplastics. Their involvement with renewable materials and energy is a great example for the many smaller companies that aspire to follow their steps.

Images – Sokolenko /; Carbios

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Synbio adds Softness: Robots of the Future will be Squishy

As AI and machine learning approach biotech, synthetic biology is approaching soft robotics. What is it bringing to the field? Conventional rigid-bodied robots are used to perform specific single tasks efficiently but often with limited adaptability when it comes to …

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French Biotech Launches Tech Platform to Boost New Cancer Treatment Research

Transgene has announced the launch of Invir.IO, a new platform to help the design of new oncolytic viruses that modulate the cancer microenvironment. Transgene designs targeted immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases. Their lead products include Pexa-Vec, an oncolytic …

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