Everledger CEO Leanne Kemp talks to CSIRO’s Professor Claudia Vickers to explore the vast possibilities for synbio in meeting the urgent need for the circular economy.
Honeybee silk, produced via a synbio process at CSIRO that allows industrial-volume silk production … [+] at room temperature using sustainable resources.
Climate change is fast becoming the mother of invention. Around the world, we’re seeing an explosion of eco-centric start-ups and tech-for-good founders who recognize the worth – both environmentally and financially – in pursuing new solutions that will help decarbonize the planet and accelerate progress towards net zero emissions. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has released the Great Reset initiative, which aims to urgently rebuild the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable, and resilient future. And the WEF is calling for greater support and prominence for social entrepreneurs.
Synthetic biology (synbio) has emerged as a rapid growth industry, with the global value of synbio technologies and products projected to reach almost $20 billion by 2024. Hundreds of startups are setting up, especially in the Bay Area, the UK, and in Australia, while R&D institutions are winning public funds to expand and upgrade their laboratories. CSIRO estimates that by 2040 this industry might revolve around USD$2-4 Trillion dollars in direct economic impact. The areas with the most potential include human health, agriculture, consumer goods and materials.
In simple terms, synbio is about designing useful things from the building blocks of life, using DNA as the code. You take a plentiful biological feedstock – such as table sugar from sugar cane – and then convert it through fermentation into something that’s hundreds or even thousands of times more valuable. Think green plastics or petroleum substitutes, even building materials.
Last week I had a conversation with Professor Claudia Vickers, Director of the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency. She commented: “Synbio is similar to making beer or wine, in that it uses microorganisms such as yeast. We want to make natural biochemicals that have industrial applications, but aren’t available in nature at levels that are economically viable. They might be pharmaceuticals, which are high value and can be produced economically at relatively low volumes, or things like food and feed ingredients which are lower value and need to be produced at medium to high levels to be economically viable.”
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Perhaps the most topical examples of synthetic biology are the mRNA coronavirus vaccines – a novel technology developed, tested, and delivered within 12 months of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alternative proteins are also an exciting area, given the high carbon footprint of meat production. For instance, the Impossible Burger in San Francisco has created headlines for using a plant protein called leghaemaglobin that gives the same sizzle and texture of a beef patty on the grill. And the Australian company Nourish Ingredients makes fats and oils that make plant-based proteins taste more like the animal alternatives, but keeps the product animal-free.
Synbio can also be used to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Another compound, produced from red seaweed, not only causes a cow to produce less methane, but also provides a more natural way of promoting weight gain. Meanwhile in fashion, Bolt Threads’ spider silk will appear in Stella McCartney’s fabrics, and Spiber has partnered with North Face in Japan.
CSIRO BioFoundry – from L to R: Dr Janet Reid, Mr Huw Hayman Zumpe, Professor Claudia Vickers
But can synbio deliver solutions at scale? Claudia certainly thinks so. “We live in incredible times,” she said. “The pandemic has highlighted to humanity the power and danger of biology, while underlining the amazing ability we now have to engineer solutions to biological threats. It’s the age of the biological revolution. Advances in the reading and the writing of DNA are now progressing at a much faster rate than the IT revolution, according to Moore’s Law, where the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved.”
Language such as ‘biology manipulation’ inevitably sparks conversations about Frankenstein foods and playing with nature. However, Claudia was quick to point out that this technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “We know that genetic modification is controversial and we acknowledge our responsibility to conduct research ethically and within regulations. We also know that many people are curious, hopeful and excited about how the emerging field of synthetic biology could address environmental, health and agricultural problems.”
On behalf of the WEF’s Future Science Council on Synthetic Biology, she is working with colleagues to draw up the values to guide development and broaden the geographical innovation that feeds into synthetic biology globally. Equity, sustainability, solidarity and humility are the four key themes for helping to expose systemic challenges and opportunities.
Full circle: tracking provenance
DNA is effectively a simple code. Similar to digital data, it can be tagged with signatures and markers. Claudia has spotted the possible crossover with other technologies: “Synbio brings together many different disciplines, including computer and social sciences. I can see a natural fit with, say, blockchain as a mechanism to identify and track provenance. Blockchain could help provide transparency and traceability to bioengineering.”
This is where a lot of her research converges with the work of blockchain-powered traceability solutions, such as those adopted by companies as far apart as apparel from fashion houses and electric vehicle manufacturers tracking their end-of-life batteries.
The WEF is also exploring these possibilities on behalf of their business and government partners. As Claudia points out: “In fact, molecular provenance plays into the values for the WEF, as equity demands that we understand the origin of every strand of biological code – and that any value and benefits are returned to the communities from whence that DNA or piece of biological material came from. Stakeholder capitalism – where sustainability considerations are driving purchasing decisions – is becoming a much more significant part of the economic ecosystem. Blockchain can help in tracing the circular journey of biomaterials.”
Claudia and I believe that to get to a sustainable economy, we need to install a dramatically different economic system. That means shifting from a single-use petrochemical economy to a circular, bio-based economy. In cities, something like 40 or even 50% of food doesn’t even reach our plates. Claudia points out that synbio offers the potential for society to recycle carbon and energy through fermentation in a local bio-based system. Likewise, think of the tonnage of fibres and fabrics, which are tossed into landfill every day. These could be broken down into fermentable carbon sources, which would contribute to the circular economy as well.
“Our ability right now to engineer biology has never been more important,” said Claudia. “We could live sustainably as a species, but all indications suggest that in developed economies, people are not prepared to make those life choices. Instead, we are gambling that scientists and engineers will come up with technologies to deal with the situation. From where I’m sitting, biology is really the only technology that can deliver sustainable solutions.”
We are both optimistic that bioengineering can rise to that challenge. “The technology is developing so fast – I love the observation from Bill Gates that we always overestimate what can happen in the next two years, but underestimate what can happen in the next ten years. Our progress over the past ten years in biological engineering and industrial biotechnology is just stunning. Things that we never considered in the scope of possibility are now everyday applications.” And she added: “For example, we have established a robotic bioengineering facility called BioFoundry, which allows us to make advances in three months that took me ten years manually with a pipette and test tubes.” I can definitely agree to this, considering my work in the blockchain industry!
Yet, there is still an embryonic feel around synbio. And the question remains: can synbio make a difference at scale? Despite all the bright ideas and prototypes, the industry is still chipping away at the edges of global challenges like hunger and climate change. “At scale” means, for example, something that delivers to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – not just making a few bucks from flavours and fragrances.
There are significant capability hurdles too – for example, there’s currently a massive insufficiency worldwide for fermentation at scale. For the technology to reach its potential, the emergence of manufacturing bio hubs located next to feedstock and renewable energy sources are required. Better still, by making them truly open and democratized, it will accelerate the chances for any industry to test, try, fail and pivot, and potentially create new solutions. And the R&D community needs to be reaching for grand challenges that can have real impact.
It’s time to make a difference at scale. Be it science, technology or the circular economy, when we work in sustainability and tech for good applications, this is how we leave our mark on humanity. Mother Nature is watching.