Monday, November 14, 2016

From Synlogic & Wyss Institute on the East Coast to Autodesk & UCSF on the West: A Look at Synthetic Biology in the US

The global synthetic biology market is supposed to reach $13.4 billion by 2019. A recent study from Transparency Market Research shows that Europe leads the world, while North America is the second largest market. Basically what synbio does is re-molds existing biological elements to create ones that do not exist in nature to make them cheaper, better or simply available to researchers for R&D when the real thing is not. You’ll see synthetic biology in biotech of course (the blog actually says that “synthetic biology has become the backbone of biotechnology”), both in food production and healthcare; there are also uses for biosecurity, energy and the environment.

Synthetic biologists are often not biologists at all but can be chemists or computer scientists. In fact one of the industry’s biggest thought leaders, Andrew Hessel, is a Distinguished Researcher with software company Autodesk in their Bio/Nano Research Group, based out of San Francisco. With software companies such as Microsoft working to use DNA to store information, it would make sense that computer science also have a hand in designing and creating DNA. Hessel would like to push for a “new Human Genome Project based on synthetic biology” and feels that aiming for 2026 is a potential goal, if synthetic biology advances as quickly as the study of genomics has. (Andrew Hessel photo below from

Autodesk was also recently in the news for their work with Gen9 and Auburn University. A team of scientists comprised of these three organizations have synthesized sCAV2, an artificial virus that can "target and kill cancer cells while sparing healthy cells." Genetic Engineering News writes: "It’s important because it not only has immediate application in studies of canine cancer, it also promises to inform the development of human therapies."

Two of the places in the US where synthetic biology is hot are, not surprisingly San Francisco and the Boston/Cambridge biotech hub. University of California San Francisco was in science headlines a year ago “controlling stem cells with light” and this past September with their “cellbots” - engineered human immune cells that can locate diseased cells as well as deliver drugs. They are sure to continue to be at the epicenter of synthetic biology – as the National Science Foundation has just awarded them a $24 million dollar grant to create a new center called the Center for Cellular Construction. The UCSF website reports that: “researchers from San Francisco State University, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and IBM Research, Almaden” (IBM Watson) will all be part of the center.

Speaking of Stanford University, a professor there named Christina Smolke has “developed a method for synthesizing opiates from yeast”. BigThink blog reports: “Smolke expects to achieve poppy-free, commercial-scale production of opiates in a few years, and is now casting her attention towards other synthetic medicines, as well as a few inventions of her own, mentioning a non-addictive form of opium as one dream drug she’d like to see.”

Cambridge based Wyss Institute describes their research as: “seeking to transform engineering, medicine and the environment by creating new materials and devices using Nature’s design”. Popular Science just gave them their “Best of What’s New” Award for their Zika diagnostic system that uses synthetic biology to diagnose a patient in the field in just a few hours. The Wyss website describes how it works: “They freeze-dry synthetic gene circuits onto paper discs. These biomolecular circuits are activated when the paper is rehydrated with a droplet of sample fluid; the disc changes color to indicate a positive result for Zika virus, similar to the visual readout of a home pregnancy test. To validate their rapid Zika test, the team successfully identified strain-specific Zika in blood samples from infected monkeys as well in laboratory cell cultures infected with the virus.”

Another recent achievement by Wyss, specifically from George Church’s team, is solving the issue of the high cost of reading DNA sequences from genomes. Their website reports that they’ve: “developed a new electronic DNA sequencing platform based on biologically engineered nanopores”.

This past week, MIT Technology Review reported that Cambridge-based Synlogic had created "smart bacteria". Synlogic is the first to patent the live E. Coli Nissle bacterium modified to assimilate ammonia. The conundrum is that the EPA may have to be brought in, along with the FDA, for approvals here - as "no one is quite sure how to regulate a GM pill whose contents are both alive and likely to end up in toilet bowls".

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