Notes from SynBioBeta SF 2014

I spent last Friday at SynBioBeta’s annual synthetic biology conference. I attended to meet company founders for a book I’m writing and to help my existing clients better understand this field and how it might impact them.

Here’s my notes from the conference:

  • According to Rob Carlson, author of Biology is Technology, total biotechnology revenues in 2012 made up 2.2 percent of US GDP. That includes all biotechnology products in agriculture, industry and medicine. Annual biotech growth is approximately 5 percent per year and is expected to continue to grow at a healthy and robust pace.
  • In addition, the GenBank database of all publicly available DNA sequences, now contains 260,000 organisms. That number continues to double every 1.5 years, which in turn, increases the possibilities for new DNA synthesis and mixing and remixing genomes and organisms.
  • DNA synthesis is getting cheaper. The dropping cost of DNA sequencing gets all the news (it’s dropped from >$100 million for the first human genome in the late 1990s to today’s nearly $1000 genome). But cheap DNA synthesis is necessary for manipulating, fixing and protecting genomes and human health. With cheaper DNA, the creation of new industrial organisms or DNA-based therapeutics or vaccines becomes easier – especially since you’re probably going to have to iterate until you get it right. Companies presenting their DNA synthesis technologies included: CambrianGenomics, who use laser printing; GenScript, who offer genome assembly; Gen9 who offer verified, gene synthesis; and, SGI-DNA, who offer a variety of synthesis tools and services
  • There has been a proliferation of gene-, genome- and (micro)organism-editing software tools. These include: Riffyn’s “blueprints for lab work”; Genome Compiler’s all-in-one rapid biology engineering platform; Biomatter’s Geneious; Tesselagen’s multiple DNA design and fabrication tools; DNA2.0’s multiple bioengineering tools and services; Transcriptic’s remote, on-demand robotic life science research lab; Synthace’s Antha tool to improve the sharability, reproducibility and scalability of biology projects; and AutoDesk’s programmable matter tools.
  • Craig Ventner gave an overview of his work as the keynote. He described the creation of a defragmented minimal genome, a Digital-Biological Converter that can receive digital info remotely (his example, from Mars) then convert it into DNA. He also mentioned his partnership with (my client) Novartis Vaccines to create the first synthetic vaccines for influenza. This is important because it allows the creation of vaccines in weeks instead of months. Ventner also gave the quote of the day:

“Scientists have to be optimistic about their ability to change the world in the face of people who resist technology.”

  • As I mentioned above, synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to biology. Agile design principles (Design, Build, Test, Learn), which are popular in the software and Internet worlds, were mentioned throughout the day.
  • The most advanced synthetic biology companies are fuel companies (Amyris, Solazyme, etc.) using sugar as a feedstock or algae to produce fuel. Presenting companies Industrial Microbes, Intrexon, Proterro, and LanzaTech use waste carbon and methanotrophs, cyanobacteria and photosynthesis to create fuels. According to LanzaTech’s Michael Koepke:

“Waste for energy, Land for food and people!”

  • Going into the conference, I was under the impression that the biggest bottleneck was the ability to translate what’s on your computer screen to what is produced in the lab. I learned there are three additional bottlenecks:
  1. Synthesized DNA is still only 50 percent to 85 percent accurate (maybe this is something the guys at Evolutionary Solutions will solve);
  2. Genome optimization is hampered by measurement, the ability to measure the output of hundreds of (re)engineered organisms simultaneously;
  3. The amount of data being generated needs to be stored and read and transmitted. While it wasn’t mentioned, I could see this becoming a problem as organism engineering becomes widespread (and the Carlson Curve overtakes Moore’s Law, as predicted).
  • Safety was only mentioned once –– by Craig Ventner. He suggested biohackers go back into academia to avoid “shutting the entire thing down.” In his post-conference article, “Why the Past is Not the Future: Biology is the New Technology,” Ryan Bethencourt of biotech incubator, IndieBio and CEO of Berkeley Biolabs, wrote “…sorry Craig, we’re here and the biohacker revolution has only just begun, expect to see a lot more of us competing with you…” Based on the fact that a 10-year moratorium on synthetic biology nearly passed at the recent Seoul, Korea, Convention on Biological Diversity, I think this emerging industry might want to consider its detractors.
  • Finally, my favorite presentations? Ginkgo Bioworks, who among other things, presented their studies on cheese-making microbes; Revolution Bio, who presented their color-changing flowers and declared “biotechnology should be beautiful” (and really showed some artful storytelling); and, Genome Compiler, whose tool lead to GlowingPlant (which in turn, sparked some debate about the field).

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