On what would have been her 99th birthday, it is hard to think of a better way to honor Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to science than by highlighting some of the outstanding female scientists of today. This year, the winner of the annual Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology—sponsored by the Rosalind Franklin Society and presented each year at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Agtech—was Reshma Shetty, PhD, a co-founder of the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and a trailblazer in the field of synthetic biology.
GEN got a chance to sit down with Shetty at the Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design (SEED) meeting in NYC in June, and asked her about science, the work going on at Ginkgo, and being in a leadership position at a top biotech company.
Shetty told GEN that she first got into science as part of a high school summer research program at the University of Utah the summer before her senior year. She not only attended the University of Utah for her undergraduate education, she remained in the same lab—the lab of Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, PhD—for all four year. Olivera studies molecular mechanisms of the nervous system through the venoms of the ocean-dwelling predatory cone snail, Conus. It was here where she “fell in love with biological research.”
From there, she jumped the pond for a short stint in the protein modeling lab of Sir Tom Blundell, PhD, at the University of Cambridge, U.K., working on the computational side of the lab. Finally, she landed in Cambridge, MA, to pursue a PhD in biological engineering at MIT, in the lab of Tom Knight, PhD, senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL.)
It was from the halls of MIT that Ginkgo Bioworks was born. Four of the 5 founders were graduate students together, plus Knight. The group had one goal: “to make biology easier to engineer,” and realized that starting a company was the best way to achieve it.
When asked about getting over the barriers that women face in getting into leadership positions in biotech, Shetty’s advice is no nonsense. “If you spend all of your time focusing on [the barriers], I think that it becomes demoralizing,” asserts Shetty. So, she says, “the best thing to do is to choose a problem you want to work on, figure out the right way to work on it, and then just go full tilt.” Then, in turn, “you can use your success to help pave a path for the folks around you.” She notes that, at Ginkgo Bioworks, they actively think a lot about diversity and inclusion and continue to have conversations around how best to promote diversity at Ginkgo.
One of Shetty’s future goals is to see the work at Ginkgo have “more of a footprint” and do “real good in the world.” Shetty tells Babbage, The Economist’s weekly science and technology podcast, that she “believe(s) in the potential of this technology” and “wants for it to do good in the world.” Shetty continues that “it is how we build the community of folks—not just the scientists but the policymakers, the NGOs, the whole community of folks who are interested in this technology and want to ensure that it is used as productively as possible for humanity.”
The organism company
The company, which started in 2008 in an apartment in Cambridge, MA, has roughly 250 employees today (and also happens to be number 19 on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list.) Ginkgo is using genetic engineering to produce microbes with industrial applications and, in doing so, pioneering the field of synthetic biology. The announcements coming out of Ginkgo (at the speed of an open fire hydrant) indicate that increasing their footprint is exactly what the team at Ginkgo is doing by integrating their expertise into multiple, varied, cutting-edge industries.
For example, Ginkgo has a partnership with Synlogic to develop “living medicines” or genetically engineered microbes to treat rare metabolic diseases such as inborn errors of metabolism. Synlogic currently has four main products in development: hyperammonemia–hepatic encephalopathy and urea cycle disorders; phenylketonuria (PKU); an immuno-oncology therapy for solid tumors, and inflammatory bowel disease (with AbbVie) with others in the pipeline.
Additionally, Ginkgo announced the acquisition of Warp Drive Bio’s genome mining platform. Integrating the technology and database from Warp Drive Bio (which was acquired by Revolution Medicines last fall) will advance Ginkgo’s footprint into antibiotic development, among other areas.
Ginkgo is partnering with Cronos Group to produce cultured cannabinoids. With Cronos’ recent announcement of the production of a new 84,000 square foot GMP compliant fermentation and manufacturing facility in Canada, they hope to produce high-quality cultured cannabinoids at commercial scale.
Another effort at Ginkgo is to design microbes to fix nitrogen. Why? Because crops require nitrogen fertilizer. But, engineering microbes to do it would lead to more sustainable agriculture. So, they started a joint venture between Ginkgo Bioworks and Bayer, named Joyn Bio, which just announced a licensing deal with NewLeaf Symbiotics for its library of plant colonizing microbes.
As if antibiotics, medicines, cannabis, and fertilizer were not enough, Ginkgo also has an interest in the new wave of cultured food. Their spinout Motif Ingredients, launched in February of this year, is a new company built on Ginkgo’s platform to create animal proteins without animals. Motif would like to do for other animal foods what Impossible Food (the company that makes the Impossible burger) did for heme, the component in an Impossible burger that makes it look and taste like meat. Shetty tells Babbage that they would “love to make veggie milk that tastes like milk and veggie eggs that taste like eggs.”
Shetty notes that, at Ginkgo, they think about biology as a technology platform. And, since the tools for designing biology have changed drastically, they can work to “transform manufacturing from being synthetic chemistry-based to being biology-based.” It is this vision that makes the work she is doing at Ginkgo so exciting, and so deserving of the Rosalind Franklin Award.
The past five Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology have been presented to:
- 2018 Krysta Harden, the executive vice president, global environmental strategy at Dairy Management
- 2017 Vonnie Estes, vice president of technology at Produce Marketing Association
- 2016 Anna Rath, JD, president and CEO of Vestaron
- 2015 Jennifer Holmgren, PhD, CEO of LanzaTech
- 2014 Debbie Yaver, PhD, managing director at Novozymes