Using synthetic biology techniques, researchers have created everything from new flavors and fragrances to new types of biofuels and materials. While the innovation potential of combining biology and engineering is unquestionable, now comes the hard part of proving that it is possible to design and build engineered biological systems on a cost-effective industrial scale, thereby creating true “bio-factories.”
For that scenario to become a reality, here are three developments in the synthetic biology space to keep an eye on in 2015:
1. New efforts to catalogue synthetic biology innovations
On April 29, the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. launched a new initiative of its Synthetic Biology Project (which dates back to 2008): a first-of-its-kind inventory to track the dizzying array of new synthetic biology products that are emerging in fields such as agriculture, chemicals and materials. The task is so large that the Wilson Center is crowdsourcing the project, letting registered users track the functions and properties of these products.
As a result of this synthetic biology inventory, a user can choose to drill down on synthetic biology innovations within a specific industry. Say, for example, you’re interested in how synthetic biology innovations from the nation’s innovators are showing up in food products that you purchase at the supermarket. In the category field, you’d select “foods,” in the country field, you’d select “U.S.” and in the “market status” field, you’d select “on the market (or close to market).” As a result, you’d find entries such as Zemea USP, a product from DuPont and Tate & Lyle Bio Products, which works via microorganism-facilitated fermentation to create new flavor profiles for food.
Having access to this type of information could be a real boon for attempts to govern and regulate these products. In order to come up with a coherent regulatory scheme, after all, policymakers need to know what’s out there, who’s using it, and what types of functions and properties these products have. And the average citizen, too, is probably more than just a little interested in what types of engineered organisms are out there.
“As the U.S. government, the United Nations and other bodies start to grapple with the governance and regulation of synthetic biology, it is imperative to track the market and understand the sectors primed for growth,” says Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project. “As more products and platforms move onto the market, there will be increased demand for risk research to underpin regulatory decisions.”
2. New initiatives to embrace industry-wide standards
Synthetic biology has the reputation for being a bit of freewheeling industry where anything goes and results are hard to replicate, so it’s no surprise that the push is growing for standards so that companies and researchers can compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges. On March 31, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) convened a working group at Stanford University to launch the Synthetic Biology Standards Consortium. Working in groups, participants at Stanford discussed the types of standards would make it easier for researchers to share methods, materials and information within the field of synthetic biology.
This embrace of industry-wide standards could be a huge step forward for the synthetic biology industry, which is still only in its infancy. Industry standards are a cornerstone of any technology industry, and getting major companies such as Dow, DuPont, Lockheed Martin and Novartis – all participants of the consortium – onboard is a positive step. Going forward, academics, researchers and entrepreneurs will develop common standards for “automating methods, describing and assembling components and documenting the performance of engineered bacterial strains.”
3. The entry of innovation champions such as DARPA into the synthetic biology field
After announcing the launch of its new Biological Technologies Office in April 2014, DARPA is finally moving off the sidelines and getting into the game. If DARPA brings the same innovation know-how to synthetic biology that it has brought to fields such as robotics, the Internet and autonomous vehicles, this could be big. At the Biology is Technology (BiT) event hosted by DARPA in San Francisco in mid-February, the agency sought to outline all the innovative ways that it hoped to use biology for defense technology, such as through its Living Foundries program.
At the BiT event, which included a keynote from Craig Venter and a fireside chat with George Church, DARPA Deputy Program Director Alicia Jackson laid out a compelling new vision for “Programming the Living World” that focused on biology as a radically new type of manufacturing platform. The goal, said Jackson, is to take everything researchers know from electronics, physics and engineering and migrate that over to the world of genomics and biology, making it possible to mass-produce engineered organisms. Jackson called synthetic biology a “new technology vector” that is more exciting and more scalable than anything that exists today.
Of course, even with these developments, there are the naysayers who claim that synthetic biology will never become “the basis of a new industrial revolution” luminaries such as Venter once promised. In mid-March, for example, Newsweek highlighted all the perils and pitfalls of synthetic biology — many of the early synthetic biology efforts at creating cheap new biofuels have not panned out, and there is a growing backlash against the use of synthetic biology products in the food industry.
However, the development of new standards and detailed inventories of products should go a long way in calming the fears of some synthetic biology critics — or at the very least, make the field easier to govern and regulate. And, if DARPA comes up with a breakthrough innovation idea on the scale of a self-driving car, the field of synthetic biology may eventually live up to its early promise after all.