Last week, Xconomy ran the first part of my conversation with Richard Kitney, a bioengineering professor at Imperial College London and a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology. We met in his campus office in November.
Kitney has coauthored hundreds of papers and helped galvanize U.K. government support for synthetic biology. He is also codirector of SynbiCITE, a national translational research center that has support from government and industry in an effort to turn synthetic biology into a major driver for the London region and the U.K. economy generally.
Some of the many products taking shape in the U.K. and elsewhere: medical diagnostics, fragrance and flavor substitutes, and biofuels. And as in any gold rush, many companies are moving aggressively to provide the tools and forge the deals needed to create synthetic biology products, while watchdogs call for a more deliberate pace to debate health, social, and ethical considerations.
Part one of the conversation began with an attempt to clear up my own confusion about the difference between the relatively new practice of synthetic biology and the 40-year-old practice of genetic engineering. To explain, Kitney described some of the technical underpinnings of synthetic biology.
Part two of the Q&A will focus on turning the science into products. Before we rejoin the conversation, however, I think it’s helpful to hear other views and definitions of the field, then briefly describe a few important products that synthetic biology has helped create or that are in development. I reached out to several people in the field to ask them for their thoughts. Perhaps my favorite response wasn’t about a product but was this, from Stanford University professor Drew Endy: “The fact that you want to write about products indicates that you want to describe what can be synthesized via biology, but not (describe) synthetic biology, per se.”
To help explain, he pointed me to an old video, shot by a student, in which Endy explains synthetic biology.
Endy tells the student, “Synthetic biology isn’t making a specific thing. It’s how you make something.” In other words, genetic engineering and synthetic biology are means to a similar end, but synthetic biology adds more steps to the process.
Jack Newman, cofounder of Emeryville, CA-based Amyris (NASDAQ: AMRS), acknowledged that the definition was elusive. “I’ve given up trying to define synthetic biology and [now] use it interchangeably with modern genetic engineering, as both seek to efficiently write DNA code into living organisms,” he said.
I suspect that a couple generations from now, perhaps earlier, we’ll look back and wonder why we were trying to suss out the difference between the two. Here are a few key products:
If there is a poster child for what synthetic biology can do, it’s from Newman’s Amyris. The compound artemisinin is used in malaria-fighting drug combinations; its precursor artemisinic acid comes from the sweet wormwood plant. But there’s not enough of it to produce a larger, cheaper, more stable drug supply. So Amyris scientists and others set out to engineer yeast to produce artemisinic acid, starting with work from the lab of University of California, Berkeley professor Jay Keasling. Amyris tweaked the yeast’s genes to provide larger yields, and made other improvements, described in a 2013 Nature paper. International drug firm Sanofi took over production in 2008 and reached 120 million doses of artemisinin in October 2014. “Jay analyzed the metabolic pathway from wormwood and worked out how to do it over a 10-year period using sugar as the yeast’s feedstock,” Kitney told me. “That’s the classic example.”
The British firm Oxitec has begun to release engineered Aedes aegypti mosquitoes into the wild to stop the spread of dengue fever. Three countries have hosted trials: the Cayman Islands, Panama, and Brazil. Brazil liked it so much it granted commercial approval in 2014, with projects now in two cities. Oxitec’s mosquitoes, all male, are meant … Next Page »