The Synthetic Biology Pathway to Innovation in Fuels and Chemicals

Rob Carlson a principle at Biodesic, an engineering, consulting, and design firm in Seattle moderated a plenary session focused on synthetic biology at BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. The panel, Status Report: The Synthetic Biology Pathway to Innovation in Fuels and Chemicals, consisted of scientists from both the biotechnology industry and academia expressing their views on the importance of synthetic biology and discussing how the technology has evolved over time.

Todd Peterson, VP, Sythentic Biology R&D at Life Technologies said, “synthetic biology is based on building living systems or rebuilding those that are living.”  Peterson described synthetic biology as engineering life for useful purposes, based on a rapidly growing field of research and new approaches to life sciences. It impacts a broad range of industrial applications using standardized parts, engineered hosts, assembly tools, computational design tools, and analytical tools in health care, renewable energy, renewable chemicals, agriculture and bio-remediation. Like traditional recombinant DNA technology, synthetic biology further manipulates nature, and has the potential to enhance the lives of human beings through delivering sustainable energy and food.

Carlson said economic demand will serve as a driver for continued proliferation of biotechnology. Today, in the United States, revenues from genetically modified systems contribute the equivalent of almost 2 percent of GDP, and are growing in the range of 15 to 20 percent per year. Our ability to manipulate biology to produce economically useful products is now moving along the road traveled by many other technologies in the 20th century.

Plastics, therapeutic drugs, biofuels and industrial chemicals are all being produced in engineered organisms. This transformation is taking place in the context of global communication, and is a push by the educated populations of China, India and other up-and-coming nations to improve their economic influence. Biological engineering, whether home-grown or practiced abroad, will soon be integrated into our society and economy as never before.

Another industrial scientist, Lori Giver, vice president from Codexis said “whole genomes, integrated platforms for use with cellulosic sugars, and training enzymes to work in different conditions will lead to novel products.” For example, the design of new enzymes from manipulating wild type enzymes for new mutations will lead to fatty alcohols for detergents.

Yizhi Cai, a senior scientist at John Hopkins University School of Medicine spoke about saccharomyces cerevisiae, a species of yeast that has been instrumental to winemaking, baking and brewing since ancient times. He also touched on his work on reengineering the microorganism, which would fortify bread with vitamins, which he envisioned could be easily and cheaply shared among impoverished people in the form of starter dough. This presents just one way that synthetic biology can lead to a sustainable solution to a critical global health problem. As time goes on synthetic biology will continue to evolve leading to further innovation.

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