The consequences of the climate crisis coupled with soil degradation and its impact on food and water security, seem dire. But, as ambitious as it may sound, synthetic biology companies could alleviate some of the environmental burden that the planet faces.
As it involves the redesigning of organisms by genetically engineering them to have new, favorable characteristics, synthetic biology is a field that has applications ranging from the manufacture of enzymes, to producing sustainable biofuel to even developing therapeutic measures for diseases, like Merck’s commercially-available diabetes drug Januvia.
The concept was first considered in the early 1960s, in a publication that studied the lac operon – a group of genes that aid in the metabolism of lactose in Escherichia coli. The study confirmed the existence of regulatory circuits that are involved in a cell’s response to its environment. Soon enough, the method of programmed gene expression was actualized, and by the 2000s, high-throughput DNA-assembly methods had evolved.
Currently, various companies are conducting research into the potential applications of synthetic biology, in an attempt to address environmental degradation among other imminent problems. Here are six companies, presented in alphabetical order, that have influenced advancement in the space of synthetic biology.
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Merging artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, Boston-based Asimov is advancing the field of synthetic biology. The synthetic biology company has designed a software that simulates genetic systems in various types of cells.
The company has made headway since it was founded in 2017, and its genetic design technology draws influence from the platform Cello, which was created by the company’s founders prior to launching Asimov. Cello’s biological circuit is modeled after the concept of integrated circuits in electronics. The naturally occurring plasmids in E. coli – gram negative bacteria present in the gut which can cause urinary tract infections – generate these circuits, which then control cellular functions depending on environmental signals.
In January this year, the U.S.’ top private biotech healthcare investment went to Asimov, with the biotech raising $200 million in series A and series B funding rounds. The financing from series B funding was led by Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), followed by investments from Fidelity Management & Research Company, KDT, Casdin Capital and Pillar, among others. The funds will be used to further refine its mammalian synthetic biology tools.
As it has collaborated with more than 25 companies, Asimov offers its technologies, which include its genetic design software and proprietary cell lines, to its partners.
We’ve been warned of the implications fossil fuels have on global warming, yet the world’s reliance on petroleum continues to dominate. However, some biotechs are looking into alternatives. Evonetix is one such synthetic biology company that aspires to develop gene synthesis technologies to produce products from biomass.
Situated in the biotech hotspot of Cambridge in England, Evonetix’s semiconductor technology aids in DNA synthesis. With a mission to bring its semiconductor chips to commercial scale, it would be able to control the synthesis of independent sequences. This is done through thermal control of the synthesis sites.
The technology uses a silicon chip in which heat is regulated to build single stranded DNA strands, which then go on to become longer double-stranded DNA upon annealing – heat treatment that alters the properties of a material. Thousands of molecules are synthesized parallel to each other on the chip.
Recently, in February, the synthetic biology company completed a $24 million financing round. As of now, Evonetix’s series B funding has passed $54 million. This round saw funds from investors like Foresite Capital, Molten Ventures, Morningside, and Cambridge Consultants, among others.
In a bid to help tackle the looming threat of climate change, California-based Kiverdi aims to provide solutions that revive the soil, convert plastics into biodegradable material as well as create fishmeal alternatives. Moreover, the synthetic biology company has developed a method to make meat from air. Yes, you read that right.
Free from pesticides, herbicides and hormones, Kiverdi’s technology, which is a carbon-negative process, focuses on fermenting the air. This is done by mixing the elements of the air in cultures to produce proteins, which are then harvested, purified and dried, forming a kind of flour. The Air Protein flour is adapted to create textures and flavors of different kinds of meat. Using 0.8 liters of water per kg of protein, the process uses less resources than other meats, and can be produced in four days.
Founded 15 years ago, Kiverdi also breaks down carbon material into its respective fundamental elements to create bio-based products. Leveraging the concept behind NASA’s technology for deep space travel, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is captured by microbes, and nutrients and bio-derived products are produced.
In 2021, the company raised $32 million in a series A funding round to expedite commercialization of Air Protein.
A breakthrough technology, CRISPR’s technique of gene editing can create drought-resistant crops and even cure genetic diseases. California’s Mammoth Biosciences aims to use novel CRISPR techniques to be able to diagnose diseases and develop therapies.
Its CRISPR-based detection platform can be programmed to create a test for any target, whereas its protein discovery platform is based on the company’s toolbox of CAS enzymes which can be used to develop therapeutic cures through gene editing. The latter involves an in-silico analysis – a method that typically screens the potential of therapeutics against its targets – from metagenomic databases and machine learning algorithms. The CRISPR systems are created and tested in the laboratory.
Founded in 2017, the synthetic biology company raised $195 million to expand its CRISPR platform for in vivo gene editing, two years ago. Having secured the funding, Mammoth Biosciences is now regarded as a unicorn startup – a company whose valuation has reached a billion dollars without being listed on the stock market.
Founded five years ago, Ribbon Biolabs specializes in building entire genomes, CRISPR libraries as well as developing DNA-based products. Set up in the Austrian capital city, Vienna, the company’s patented technology incorporates biochemistry, algorithmics and robotic automation for DNA synthesis, making the process more cost-effective.
In December 2022, the company announced the implementation of its InfiniSynth platform for the automated assembly of sequence-agnostic and long DNA. The technology leverages the potential of robotic automation to amplify DNA assembly. As it can sequence more than 10,000 base pairs using this mechanism, Ribbon Biolabs can manufacture DNA at a commercial-scale.
The assembly workflow ensures that there aren’t any mismatches when polynucleotide synthesis takes place, thereby expediting efficiency and reducing the production time.
The company obtained a U.S. patent for its method to synthesize DNA using pre-built libraries of oligonucleotides, in July 2022. And to enable large-scale synthesis of DNA, the synthetic biology company raised €18 million ($19.88 million) in series A funding for the set up of its production facilities. The investment will also aid in speeding up recruitment programs to grow its team. The major investors this time around were Hadean Ventures, Helicase Venture, IST Cube, Lansdowne Partners Austria and tecnet equity.
If you were to book a table at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, and order from their menu, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that the meat was manufactured from lab-cultured cells, rather than farmed chicken.
The fine-dining eatery’s collaboration with Upside Foods makes this experience possible. Established in California in the U.S., the company focuses on an up and coming application of synthetic biology – the production of cell-cultured meat.
Set up in 2015, the company’s first product was developed by creating a cell line by extracting cells from a chicken, following which the selected cell line was fed into a cultivator that contained nutrients to aid in the growth of the cells. After the cells multiplied, the meat was harvested and molded into the shape of a chicken filet, before being seasoned and refrigerated for cooking. Since then, Upside Foods has ventured into developing other poultry, meat and seafood cell lines.
As the growing demand for meat is expected to double by 2050, cultivating it in labs is a viable method, and as research progresses, it offers consumers a choice to opt for meat from conventional livestock, cell-cultured foods or plant-based alternatives. In November 2022, the company’s cultivated chicken was deemed to be safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it became the first company in the world to receive a “No Questions” letter from the FDA for its products.