How Biology Will Replace Your Manufacturing Process

How Biology Will Replace Your Manufacturing Process

By Dino Gane-Palmer

What would it mean if your company’s product could be grown and harvested as the offshoot of a genetically engineered plant? It may sound like science-fiction, but this future is becoming reality: genetically engineered organisms that create energy, drugs and all forms of other products. The field of Synthetic Biology holds the potential of creating organisms that emulate and replace large scale manufacturing plants and supply chains, dramatically cutting costs, improving efficiencies and reducing waste.

What makes these startling applications possible is the advancement of genetic engineering, turning DNA into something more akin to a programming language. These artificially created ‘programs’ are run inside of a cell, instead of a computer. These single-cell computers multiply, creating their own “hardware”, and ultimately turn into a biological organism designed to achieve its objective – be it create fuel, food or drugs. In the future, we will creating artificial life-forms will be as easy as creating a website.

Early applications of Synthetic Biology have been focused on critical world problems, such as developing renewable energy and creating anti-malaria drugs. With these applications now coming into commercial production, it is only a matter of time before other applications are developed for less “critical” areas, such as consumer products goods. At PreScouter we work with a wide variety of corporate innovation leaders. We believe many corporations are overlooking Synthetic Biology’s potential to be as disruptive for manufacturing as the Internet was for content businesses – such as the music and newspaper businesses.

Bacteria that produce ethanol

A prominent early application of Synthetic Biology is in energy production. The current production process for creating ethanol can be an arduous process involving harvesting of crops and plants, liquefaction into starch and sugar, fermentation, as well as refinement and purification. Much of the land and crops used for creating ethanol is also diverted from other uses, such as food production.

Scientists at Joule Unlimited Technologies Inc. have engineered a version of cyanobacteria that acts as a ‘microfactory’. This single cell organism uses the carbon from the CO2 and sunlight to produce ethanol. Joule’s cyanobacteria eliminates the costly processing steps needed to currently produce ethanol. Joule’s process requires no corn, sugar or any other raw materials. In Hobbs, New Mexico, Joule has started operating its first ethanol production plant.

Anti-malarial drugs made from yeast

Another early application of Synthetic Biology is in drug development. Every year, over 200 million people in the developing world contract malaria. Malaria kills over 650,000 people every year. The active ingredient in anti-malarial treatments is artemisinin. Artemisinin is extracted from sweet wormwood grown commercially in China, Southeast Asia and Africa. The quality, supply and cost have been unpredictable and inconsistent. In the meanwhile, global demand for artemisinin has increased since 2005.

In 2003, Prof Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley created a startup – Amyris – that has developed a genetically modified form of yeast that produces the chemical precursor of artemisinin. In April 2013, French multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi began large scale production artemisinin using Amyris’ technology. With this development, the world is closer to a more stable supply of key anti-malarial treatments.

What does Synthetic Biology mean for you?

At PreScouter, we have worked with over 60 corporations over the past two years. Often corporate innovators come to us with their most important innovation problems. Very few of these problems have been to investigate the impact of Synthetic Biology on their industry. While Synthetic Biology may take another 20 to 50 years to have an impact on mainstream industries, corporations need to factor Synthetic Biology on their technology roadmaps now.

Learn more about Synthetic Biology

These resources provide a good starting point to exploring Synthetic Biology, and what it could mean for your company:

When you are ready, our teams our available to extensively explore how Synthetic Biology could impact your industry.

Photo by Epic Robot Drawing at www.NelsonRobotics.org

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