Can synthetic biology live up to the hype?
Synthetic biology, or synbio for those in the know, is a term increasingly used for technology to redesign organisms to suit human purposes at a scale that goes beyond current genetic engineering. The synbio approach promises bio-based manufacture of all sorts of chemicals. It sets out to present an alternative to fossil fuel based chemistry (e.g. fuel, plastics) and also for manufacturing products like saffron or vanilla which require very sophisticated and therefore costly processing or agricultural production.
If this sounds revolutionary, a closer look at synthetic biology reveals much less of a technological leap than is promised by some headlines – the field relies on technology that is very much part of the bedrock of biotechnology, gene transfer and cloning, DNA synthesis and sequencing. Synthetic biology has not suddenly appeared from nowhere but largely grew out of conventional biotechnology. This is reflected in an unusually large market size for an allegedly young industry - Allied Market Research predicts a market volume of $38.7 billion in 2020. And sure enough, the important players in the field include well-known names like Dupont, Novozymes and DSM besides smaller and newer companies like Amyris or Evolva.
What, then, justifies the buzz around synthetic biology? After all, manipulating organisms to serve human purposes is not exactly a new idea, even when we disregard age-old examples like brewer’s yeast and limit ourselves to genetic engineering proper, which is now a decade-old technology in frequent use, e.g. for the production of insulin or the creation of pest-resistant crops.
Mostly, it is the scope of synthetic biology’s ambition that sets it apart - instead of transferring individual genes, e.g. for insulin into the host organism, synbio transfers or changes whole sets of genes in an organism. It aims to establish whole biochemical pathways to make a product, enabling e.g. the microbial synthesis of Stevia sweetener as currently being developed by Evolva. Synthetic biology embodies an engineering approach to biology where genes and genetic systems are functional modules. Equipped with a toolbox of standard components, the synthetic biologist should be able to combine them freely in order to create human-designed organisms. Currently, this is more a concept than reality - the complexity of biological systems is still frequently baffling wannabe engineers, as our understanding of gene interaction and expression is still incomplete.
Still, synthetic biology could eventually translate into all kinds of bio-manufactured products, ranging from precursors for chemical synthesis, biofuel and bioplastics, to cosmetics and food ingredients – and this is, without question, a very exciting proposition.
However, the history of synthetic biology already includes a warning about the danger of trusting hype – the high hopes set on algal biofuel have had to be laid aside at least for now. The survivors of the algal biofuel trend had to find more profitable shores and remarkably, many of them have moved into high value products like bio-manufactured lubricants, colorants, flavours, fragrances as exemplified by companies like Solazyme and Sapphire Energy. While being niche products for the time being, these examples provide a proof-of-principle for synbio-driven production methods. They also demonstrate an advantage over “conventional” GM crops. While synbio compounds are produced using GM organisms, these products need not be labelled as GM, and can even be classed as natural. This is quite an advantage in today’s climate of distrust towards GM-derived products, especially in the food sector.
So while synthetic biology won’t yet replace traditional manufacturing methods by storm, the current trickle of commercial applications is likely to increase as the technology improves and while low cost products like biofuel might still be off by some time, there is clearly a growing number of higher margin products ripe for synbio manufacturing.