Circe Biosciences, a startup founded at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, has commercialized a novel bioproduction technology with the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions from a variety of industries, including food and aviation fuel. The startup was spun out of Harvard and entered into an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement arranged by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD).

Developed in the laboratory of Pamela Silver, a member of the Wyss core faculty, Circe co-founders Shannon Nangle, PhD, and Marika Ziesack, PhD, employed synthetic biology techniques to modify the metabolic processes of specific microbes. These microbes have a natural ability to consume greenhouse gases, and through genome engineering, Nangle and Ziesack enabled them to produce valuable molecules in high demand across various industries. Their platform has successfully generated molecules identical to those in sugars, fats, biodegradable plastics, and biofuels. This achievement is accomplished solely by utilizing CO2, water, and electricity as the required inputs.

Founded on fat

Circe, named after the concept of circular industries with cellular factories, was founded to reduce carbon emissions and improve the bioeconomy by applying biological principles. The primary goal of their initial effort was to create genetically modified bacteria capable of producing triglycerides—the building blocks of most animal and human fats, including edible fats, butters, and oils. With their triglycerides, the team has created the first gas fermentation-derived chocolate. Furthermore, this proof of concept demonstrated Circe’s ability to take food product production essentially anywhere in the world and help lessen the production industry’s environmental impact. The Circe group is also looking into other fats, such as milkfat (which can give non-dairy milk products a creamier flavor) and palm oil (which could be used for sustainable fuels, cosmetics, and food).  

While at the Wyss, the Circe team received $3.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E ECOSynBio program, which facilitates the implementation of cutting-edge technologies that mitigate the hazards linked to engineering carbon-optimized bioconversion routes capable of generating valuable bioproducts without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. Circe has received over $8 million in funding from notable investors, including Regen Ventures, Undeterred Capital, Ponderosa Ventures, Bee Partners, and Elementum Ventures. However, the competition in the fat synthesis industry is fierce, with firms like Aio, Yali Bio, Zero Acre Farms, c16 Biosciences, and Nourish all employing microbial fermentation in their own fat synthesis processes.

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