Bacteria have been Public Enemy No. 1 for most of our species’ time on Earth. Although Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it wasn’t successfully mass-produced until World War II. Even then, seven decades is small on a timeline spanning 200,000 years. For those of you keeping score at home, bacteria are winning in a landslide.
Enter synthetic biology. The aim is to reduce the complexity of life to its most basic parts, hijack the genetic code of microbes, insert completely new biological parts into a range of hosts, and turn the scorn of humanity into a tool for advancing civilization. We may have a long way to go before we even the score, but some novel ideas of synthetic biology could pile up some big victories for our species.
Synthetic biology has game-changing potential for every aspect of daily life and every segment of the economy. Its emergence has many believing that a transition to a bioeconomy (link opens PDF) is inevitable. While nearly the entire field lies out of the reach of individual investors for now, it’s never too early to do your initial research. Here are just a few projects that will bring synthetic biology to your doorstep.
1. Building life
Imagine a software platform that allowed you to specify the conditions (temperature, pH, pressure) of your chemical process, select the parts or functions you want your microbe to possess, and hit “print.” It may sound too good to be true, but this isn’t some fanciful idea from the plot of a sci-fi movie. This is the engineering platform that synthetic biology company Ginkgo BioWorks is developing.
In other words, the company isn’t growing life. It’s building it.
Ginkgo’s platform is tackling biomanufacturing problems in industries from energy to health care, although no industry is out of reach when you can design cells from scratch. How does the company do it? In much the same way that standardized mechanical parts from the Industrial Revolution enabled countless technological breakthroughs, BioBricks allow Ginkgo to reliably create microbes batch after batch. The open-source registry of biological parts, which can be purchased and inserted into a microbial host, is being fully supported by the industry.
It may sound like a crazy business model, but decades from now Ginkgo’s work today will probably be likened to early versions of Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC). They had some pretty crazy ideas for their time, too.
2. Novel flu vaccine production
Did you get a flu shot this year? Chances are, the vaccine injected under your skin was developed in a chicken egg. That may weird you out, but there are some serious drawbacks to the industry-standard manufacturing process. It can be difficult to cultivate large amounts of uncontaminated chicken egg factories quickly, and the purification routine needed to attain finished product is a nightmare. Not to mention that not all flu strains — which mutate each year — can be easily grown with this method.
That’s why Protein Sciences’ progress in vaccine manufacturing is such a big deal. The company’s recently approved process uses armyworm cells (hey, they’re better than chicken eggs) to create a purer, higher-quality vaccine at a cheaper cost.
If Protein Sciences can successfully navigate market forces, then I wouldn’t bet against seeing it disrupt the $1 billion U.S. flu vaccine market led by Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS) and GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (NYSE:GSK) . While the new vaccines haven’t been shown to be any more effective than egg-sourced predecessors, they may be a hit with consumers who prefer natural products, are allergic to eggs, or follow a vegan lifestyle. CEO Manon Cox is even looking into potential partnerships with natural stores such as Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM). Out of my way, Walgreen Company (NYSE:WAG) — I need to get a flu shot.
3. Non-traditional food sources
There are limits to the amount of cargo that can be launched into space, but astronauts’ appetites have no such limits. It should be no surprise, then, that NASA has studied the potential of algae and cyanobacteria to provide nutritional diets for spacefaring humans since the 1960s. One ounce of the cyanobacterium seaweed spirulina contains just 80 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 16 grams of protein, and 44% of the daily recommended intake of iron.