Synthetic Biology: Injecting New Life into the Chemical Industry
4:38 PM MST | December 13, 2010 | By &MDASH;LAURA TEMPLER
The J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI; San Diego, CA) announced in May of this year that it had, for the first time in scientific history, created a new, living microorganism in a laboratory. Such designer organisms are not yet commercially viable but could be in use in 10 years to manufacture biofuels and biomaterials, some experts say.
J. Craig Venter, leader of the research team and among the first to sequence the human genome, claims that when it is commercialized the technology will revolutionize the chemical industry. The organism-creating technology, dubbed ‘synthetic biology’ by Venter, is “one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good,” he says. Venter’s technology has the potential to cut the processing time expended by existing synthesis technologies, some experts say.
The technology also has significant potential for advancing pharmaceuticals. In recent weeks, JVCI disclosed it has begun collaborating with Novartis to develop flu vaccines using synthetic genomics technologies used to create the novel microorganisms.
ExxonMobil already is closely aligned with Venter. Last year, it invested $500 million in the development of Venter’s technology via the formation of a joint venture to develop biofuels from genetically engineered algae.
Start-ups and established chemical companies alike are now starting to look very carefully at the opportunities from bioprocessing renewable raw materials. One such company, Cobalt Technologies (Mountain View, CA), produces soy-derived chemicals. Cobalt says it is economically favorable for the company to generate chemicals rather than biofuels. “Why make a $2 fuel when you can make a $5 chemical?” says CEO Rick Wilson.
Analysts agree that the biochemicals market represents a sizeable opportunity, with sales estimated to reach $57 billion/year by 2015.
The potential for synthetic biology has long been recognized, but has remained unfulfilled. Polish geneticist Waclaw Szybalski, in 1974, said the field had “unlimited expansion potential and hardly any limitations” to building better control circuits and synthetic organisms.
The dream was finally realized in May of this year by a team of 20 scientists from JCVI. It took 15 years for them to build the 1.08 million base pair genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. This technology was made possible by synthesizing each base pair of the DNA and then building them together into a single genome. Each gene within the genetic material is built with the purpose of generating biochemicals and breaking down feedstocks in a cost effective way that reduces by-products.
Biotechnologies currently in use include the manipulation of a single gene to enhance the already existing pathways inside an algal cell. This makes the cell overproduce a metabolic by-product: oil. This technique is used by the chemical company Solazyme (San Francisco), which refines the synthetic oil in fractionating towers to produce chemicals, fuels, and waste products.
By creating a whole genome, Venter’s technology will not need to use the current approach of repeat manipulations of single genes to perfect them. Instead, the more-efficient synthetic biology method will make the entire bacterium a biochemical-producing machine. Such advantages make synthetic biology superior and potentially cheaper than today’s biotechnology.
Some biotechnology companies that are already rolling out their own bioprocessing technologies dispute Venter’s definition of synthetic biology. They say there is little threat from Venter’s technology because by the time it becomes commercial their technologies will already have been established for several years.
There is “no such thing as synthetic biology yet,” says Steen Riisgaard, president and CEO of Novozymes. Novozymes produces enzymes that are used to break down biomaterials into usable feedstocks for bacterial bioethanol production and other products.
When asked about the future of synthetic biology and potential uses in production, Riisgaard says he does “not see a role for synthetic biology. We have already come a long way with old fashioned biotechnology and we still see a large potential for developing it with the current technology. Therefore we currently see no need for synthetic biology within these areas.”
Genomatica (San Diego), a start-up company that uses genetically enhanced microorganisms to manufacture biochemicals, also rejects the notion that synthetic biology will be a threat to its activities. “Synthetic biology practitioners are trying to develop a brand-new organism, whilst also trying to get it to produce the desired output,” the company says. “We believe there’s a longer timeline, higher cost, and higher risk in that approach.” In contrast to Venter’s team, Genomatica already has developed specific bioprocesses using its technology to make certain chemicals including 1,4-butanediol and methyl ethyl ketone. Genomatica is now at the phase where it is planning to build a demonstration-scale plant for its processes.
Despite the skepticism about synthetic biology, some scientists continue to support Venter’s approach. George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School (Cambridge, MA) and professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard University (Cambridge) and MIT (Cambridge) believes that when the technology comes to market it “could be revolutionary.”
Church backs up his claim saying that if we use synthetic biology “we can prevent disasters such as the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by only making compounds that we want, not mixtures of tars and toxins. We can manufacture all complex materials or chemicals at the cost of wood$100/m.t. or lesssince synthetic biology is poised to bring down the cost of photosynthesis 10-fold.”
Andreas Schirmer from the biochemical company LS9 (San Francisco) also has high hopes for the commercial prospects of synthetic biology in the chemical industry. “Assembling large metabolic pathways from a number of individual genes can now be done much faster,” Schirmer says. “Before synthetic biology, these pathways had to be built step-by-step and adding additional perturbations had to be limited.”
Biochemical production is becoming increasingly important due to the rising price of mineral oil which has gone from $27.39/bbl in 2000 to about $70/bbl today. The cost of crude oil is set to go beyond $100/bbl in the next few years as cheap sources run low and the need for clean and renewable fuels and materials increases. Under these circumstances synthetic biology has a strong chance of becoming a key bioprocessing tool for the chemical industry, some industry experts say.
However, in the 10 years or more that it will take Venter to commercialize his technology, the biomaterials landscape will have significantly changed, and Venter’s science may arrive too late to be the most successful technology used in the bioprocessing sector. Ultimately, chemical companies will use a technology to “reach the end product more quickly and cost effectively and not a technology with the most media interest,” Schirmer says. “Companies will ultimately use the techniques that will get them to the finish lines the fastest,” he says.