What is Synthetic Biology and why should you care?

The term Synthetic Biology, or SynBio, has been used for a while; the meaning of the term seems to have evolved and changed with time. Once a very specific field involved in the development of novel organisms, synthetic biology now seems to encompass a much broader spectrum of research areas.

There is currently no universal definition for Synthetic Biology, but the EBRC defines Synthetic Biology as the design and construction of new biological entities such as enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells or the redesign of existing biological systems. This definition seems to fit well with the current activity in the field.

Regardless of the exact definition of Synthetic Biology, it is a field of huge promise which could have a massive positive impact on society and the world we live in over the coming years.

By 2050, the global population is expected to exceed 10 billion. Synthetic Biology could help us address concerns such as food shortages, climate change, pandemic control, dwindling fuel reserves, and increasing levels of pollution.

History and Outlook of Synthetic Biology

The first international conference for synthetic biology, Synthetic Biology 1.0 (SB1.0) was held at MIT in 2004, and the first synthetic bacterial genome (M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.) was published in Science in 2010 based on research from Craig Venter Institute. Since these two key milestones, synthetic biology has continued to evolve into an enabling technology by which almost anything might be manufactured competitively and sustainably.

For example, BCG report that SynBio could disrupt the manufacturing industries that account for more than a third of global output by the end of the decade — approaching $30 trillion in terms of value (according to a BHI study).

There are two main themes within the SynBio field at present: (i) the development of tools for synthetic biology, and (ii) the utilisation of such tools to generate products.

The development of new tools has continued to grow in recent years, with companies now offering proprietary methods which can accelerate and improve SynBio research efforts.

Synthetic biology could be utilised to produce or optimise: carbon-neutral drop-in fuels, microbes which degrade plastic waste, tasty meat-free protein sources, complex new immunotherapies, and much more.

Technologies to watch

Gingko Bioworks and Twist Bioscience are two leading SynBio companies; both have developed their own techniques which could enable the next SynBio products of tomorrow.

Gingko’s platform aims to enable customers to efficiently program cells for desired SynBio applications, and they have recently partnered with Bayer to develop biological solutions in areas such as nitrogen optimization, carbon sequestration, and next generation crop protection. They are a public company, listed on NYSE as DNA, and reported USD 313.84 million in revenue for 2021.

Twist Bioscience developed a proprietary semiconductor-based synthetic DNA manufacturing process featuring a high-throughput silicon platform that allows us to miniaturize the chemistry necessary for DNA synthesis. They are a public company, listed on Nasdaq as TWST, and are making impressive profits.

It is not only the big companies which are making waves in the SynBio area, smaller start-ups and universities have also been pulling their weight and producing some amazing results.

C3 Biotechnologies are a Manchester based start-up which are focussed on responsible innovation through Synthetic Biology. Their technologies link waste management with chemical and fuel production, through the use of novel engineered microbes. C3 are currently working with the UK RAF and US Navy to develop synthetic aviation fuel. Synthetic fuel produced using C3’s proprietary methods has recently been used by the RAF to fly a four-meter drone.

Constructive Bio is a spin out from the laboratory of Prof. Jason Chin at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Their platform allows reprogramming of the genetic code to make new classes of enzymes, pharmaceuticals and biomaterials.

Synthetic Biology is a focus for many universities, with many specialist centres being set up within university campuses. For example, SynbiCITE, (the UK’s National Centre for the Industrial Translation of Synthetic Biology hosted by Imperial College London) was established in 2013 to accelerate SynBio innovation. It has provided synthetic biology startups and SMEs from across the UK with expertise, technical facilities, and business training that have so far helped 27 companies achieve a combined market capitalisation of £790 million.

Such centres are certainly not limited to Europe, with many excellent facilities and organisations flourishing at universities globally. The National University of Singapore (NUS) Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI) team has more than 100 researchers dedicated to working on interdisciplinary research areas in synthetic biology – leading to generation of considerable IP and the publication of many important manuscripts.

The importance of SynBio Intellectual Property (IP)

In this exciting and competitive field, and it is extremely important to manage IP effectively to make the most of research efforts. Disruptive IP can require novel strategies to protect it, and often patent offices themselves are on a learning curve on how to deal with it. For example existing systems for examining inventions based on genes can struggle with the scale of entire novel genomes. Whether this IP relates to novel SynBio platforms, bioinformatics methods, engineered organisms, or exciting new products, we are very much looking forward to working with our current SynBio clients and prospective new companies in the future to provide them with our guidance in this important area.