Synthetic Biology: The Next Big Disruptor?

Synthetic Biology: The Next Big Disruptor?

By Patricia Rubert-Nason

The Future of Food, Fuel, Pharma, and Chemicals

By: Patricia Rubert-Nason, PhD PreScouter Technical Project Manager

In the past 25 years, modern society has seen many disruptive innovations, most of which have been based on a single platform: the internet. The key feature of most disruptive innovations is their ability to exploit and eliminate inefficiencies in existing systems. The connectedness enabled by the internet has allowed companies across a range of industries to replace traditional, capital-intensive approaches with new ways of doing business. Being at the forefront of this trend, companies such as Amazon, AirBnB, and Uber have experienced double and even triple-digit growth. On the other hand, companies that failed to anticipate the changes have been displaced by savvier competitors.

Just as the internet has enabled a more efficient distribution of information, synthetic biology has the potential to enable biological systems to be used more efficiently to produce food, pharmaceuticals, fuel and chemicals.

Synthetic Biology As the Next Disruptive Platform

Engineering biological systems is not new.  Starting with classic animal and plant breeding, humans have been modifying biological systems at least since the dawn of agriculture.  However, in recent decades, the tools at our disposal have become exponentially more powerful. Genetic engineering, for example, has been used to modify crops and microbes for the past 20 years.  This has revolutionized agricultural systems and has played a key role in the widespread availability of a number of drugs including insulin, human growth hormone and more.

Today, the tools of synthetic biology enable the application of mathematical and engineering principles to biological systems. This allows researchers to design, build and test new genomes much more quickly. Just as the internet has provided a platform that has enabled new business models to disrupt existing industries such as hotels, transportation and retail, synthetic biology is also creating a platform that will enable new innovations.

Many areas of manufacturing, such as food, pharmaceuticals, fuel and chemicals, have inefficiencies similar to those that were seen in disrupted industries before the advent of the internet.


Traditional agriculture is heavily dependent on the availability of large amounts of land, water, and fossil fuels.  The production of animal protein is particularly inefficient as livestock convert only a small percentage of their feed into protein and the desired products constitute only a fraction of the mass of the animal.  With the global population passing 7 billion and the per capita consumption of meat and milk continuing to increase, we need to find more efficient means of production.

Imagine if, instead of growing animals to produce food, you could produce the desired products directly.  This vision is not as far-fetched as it seems.  For instance, rennet (used in cheese-making) was traditionally derived from the stomachs of calves.  Today, 70% of all cheese is produced using rennet fermented from genetically modified organisms and only 5% is produced using calf rennet.  Today, there is active work on the production of both meat and milk without the use of animals.  Twenty years from now, having your burger origin as a part of a cow may be the exception, rather than the rule.


The pharmaceutical industry is a prime target for synthetic biology.  Many pharmaceutical agents are biological in nature, yet producing them in significant quantities can be quite challenging.  For drugs derived from plants, the active ingredient is often present in very low concentrations and, in many cases, the plants involved can be quite difficult to grow in quantity.  This leads to high prices and limited availability when the drugs are obtained by purification from the original plant material.  At the same time, synthetic routes can be quite challenging as well.  Pharmaceuticals are often complicated molecules and stereochemistry can be very significant.  Synthetic routes to achieve them using traditional chemistry can be very complicated and require extensive purifications.  The high specificity of enzymatic reactions is attractive, but most enzymes won’t function in industrial conditions or are inefficient.  Synthetic biology allows the production of biological systems that can produce large quantities of the desired products, in industrial conditions, with high specificity.  It has already revolutionized the production of a number of drugs and has the potential to revolutionize many more.

Fuel and Chemicals

Fossil fuels are a finite resource.  Recognizing that their cost is likely to increase dramatically over time and facing the realities of climate change, there is a significant incentive to find biological alternatives to fossil fuels.  This applies not only to the energy industry, but also to the production of chemicals, most of which are currently synthesized from fossil fuels.  By engineering biological systems, it is possible to efficiently transform biological feedstocks into fuels and chemicals.  For instance, algal cells can be engineered to secrete lipids and fatty acids that can be transformed into diesel, gasoline and jet fuel. In addition, sugars can be converted to anything from rubber to fragrance compounds.

These descriptions represent the tip of the iceberg. At our presentation, a team of graduate researchers heavily involved in these fields gave a much more detailed presentation about the potential impact of synthetic biology on the future of food, pharmaceuticals, fuel and chemicals.

While the future of technology is rife with uncertainties, one thing is clear: technology is constantly changing. Failing to adapt to those changes can cost a business dearly, as the legacies of Kodak, Montgomery Ward, and Borders can attest. PreScouter’s webinar on Disrupting Tomorrow: Applications in Synthetic Biology, can help you get a head-start on preparing for the impacts of synthetic biology on your business.


Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.