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Dec 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 21)

Synthetic Bio Not Yet Ready for the Market

Lab-Designed Calls and Pathways Take Genetic and Metabolic Engineering to Next Level

  • Drugs and Flavors

    Evolva  sets out to “create semi-optimal full processes in one go, then iterate on those solution sets to optimize them,” according to CEO and managing director, Neil Goldsmith. “So rather than create a Ferrari by first designing the engine, then the wheels, then the brakes, our approach creates a ‘draft Ferrari’, with all these elements incorporated from the start and then iteratively improves from there.”

    Evolva is currently collaborating with research groups from the University of Copenhagen, the Danish Technical University, Danisco, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on several research projects. For Evolva’s part, the company is engineering S. cerevisiae for production of the flavor ingredient vanillin, while Danisco is studying arabinogalactan proteins such as gum arabic, which has industrial use as a food stabilizer and in textiles, printing, paints, and cosmetics.

    Evolva just expanded a research collaboration with Abunda Nutrition for production of undisclosed “high-value” food ingredients. An ongoing partnership with Roche is focused on oncology and anti-infectives.

    The company’s own pipeline comprises compounds for cardiovascular and renal disease, invasive and topical fungal infections, and influenza and hemorrhagic fevers.

  • Tackling Oil Spills

    Click Image To Enlarge +
    Amyris yeast (colored blue) producing and excreting BioFene™ (gold), the company’s precursor to biobased diesel and chemicals: The BioFene accumulates as an oil and separates from the water phase.

    Modular Genetics  recently received NSF funding to apply synthetic biology for production of biodispersants—biologically produced, potentially less toxic alternatives to dispersants like Corexit®, which was used for the recent BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill but has been banned from use elsewhere in the world.

    Modular Genetics and its research partners at Columbia University, Iowa State University, and Louisiana State University  were awarded a one-year $200,000 grant to support production and testing of biodispersants based on soybean feedstocks. The company is applying its in-house automated system for microbial-strain engineering to “rapidly develop a collection of novel, highly engineered microbes that can synthesize biodispersants,” notes Kevin Jarrell, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder.

    Modular biodispersants are intended to draw on underutilized agricultural waste material and are expected to be more readily biodegradable and less toxic than the chemical dispersants currently used, according to Dr. Jarrell, who highlights again the necessity of computer-aided design and high throughput for commercial synthetic biology efforts.

    “Modular has written over 300,000 lines of software code to allow us to design and engineer genes, proteins, and microorganisms. The software interacts with a robotic system that does the physical manipulation required to produce the specialty chemicals we’re aiming for. We then apply high-throughput testing to see if we’ve succeeded in creating organisms that can convert agricultural material into high-value industrial products.”

    Ultimately the goal is to render green products “made from totally renewable materials by engineered organisms that are purified with environmentally clean methods—potentially using just energy, water, and alcohol,” Dr. Jarrell says.

    As all these synthetic biology companies note, commercial deployment is, in fact, either already well near commercialization or actually under way. Amyris has applied its synthetic biology platform to create microbial strains that produce artemisinic acid, a precursor of the antimalarial compound artemisinin. The company bestowed a royalty-free license to the technology to Sanofi-Aventis which intends to distribute artemisinin-based antimalarials by 2012.

  • Just the Facts

    1 Synthetic biology products based on engineered pathways have in fact long been in commercial use (e.g., enzymes for detergents).
    2 Synthetic biology employing wholly de novo constructed organisms has been demonstrated in proof of concept but is still several years from commercial scale.
    3 The field is defined by digital design of species-agnostic phenotypic functions, high-throughput identification of function (to design specifications), and large-scale production and purification of end products (cells or cellular components).
    4 In practice, synthetic biology is largely focused on “reading” DNA and on small-scale demonstration projects. The establishment of truly high-throughput DNA “writers” (DNA printing machines) should markedly accelerate commercial possibilities.


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