With ERS' Paul Carter
- Sr. Director Business Development & Licensing, North America
SynBioBeta 2023: Time to scale
The recent SynBioBeta conference was not only a chance to enjoy a post-COVID meeting of scientific minds, it was also an opportunity to celebrate how far the field has come in recent years.
Exciting topics emerged throughout the conference — such as the circular carbon economy and sustainable food production — but the overarching theme seemed to be the move towards delivering the products of synthetic biology (SynBio) at scale.
Food for the future
Many in the SynBio field are focusing on solving global problems such as food scarcity and sustainability. The big challenge is how to create more robust food systems that are less resource intensive, less harmful to animals, or more friendly to the planet (ideally all three).
During the conference, I came across multiple examples of how researchers are using SynBio to tackle global food challenges. Lab-cultivated meat is an obvious example where this technology can make a big difference and there were a number of companies presenting advances in cultured meat products. But there are other proteins that could also be amenable to bioproduction.
For example, one team discussed using yeast to produce milk proteins — a process which, if optimised and scaled, could transform the dairy industry. Other ongoing projects included using E.coli bacteria to express a specific protein in bread that kept it from going mouldy, and using algae to produce oils for human consumption. In the future, we might even see an algae-based ocean farming system that is directly producing consumables!
There were also some intriguing examples of researchers incorporating genomes from other organisms into a bioproduction system — such as grabbing molecular pathways from hops and including them in a brewer’s yeast genome.
In this way, it might be possible to get all the flavours you would traditionally expect from hops without actually using them in the beer production process. You could also impart all kinds of other flavours in the same way, creating a versatile brewing system for traditional and novel drinks.
CRISPR is key to the SynBio revolution
Unsurprisingly, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing featured heavily as a key SynBio technology due to its ability to easily manipulate cells in a reliable and high-throughput way.
CRISPR allows researchers to uncover the genetics underpinning the most valuable attributes of a cell, edit these genes, and then optimise mammalian, plant or microbial cell lines to enable cost-effective scaling of the entire system.
I saw many companies using CRISPR to create new biomolecules, develop bioproduction processes and optimise them to work at scale. And there were many more examples where it’s only a matter of time before bringing in gene editing technology becomes necessary.
Go big or go home
After several years of scaling up the technical and research capabilities, there is now a push to transfer this to commercial-scale manufacturing to realise SynBio’s promise of transforming industry.
How can we possibly feed the projected 10 billion people in the world in 2050? The only feasible way to do that is to employ new technologies, including CRISPR, to enhance food production systems in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way.
A great example of the importance of scale in SynBio processes came from a Dutch Start-up, Meatable.
They’ve significantly improved the bioproduction of their cells in order for the process to be economically viable, achieving a four- to eightfold improvement that has reduced the number of reactors needed to produce their meat substitute at scale.
It was also clear that many at the conference were increasingly excited about the convergence of three key factors; artificial intelligence to model the way these bioproduction systems work, editing tools like CRISPR, and lab automation.
There’s the sense that while SynBio approaches are starting to be effective at scale, the combination of these factors over the coming years could give rise to exponential growth and capability in the bioproduction area in the future.
And finally, CRISPR in space?
One of the more out-of-this-world applications I spotted at SynBioBeta was in space research. Could SynBio help overcome some of the challenges of long missions to Mars?
Don’t fret about packing everything you need or might need in space — just take a handy bioproduction system instead! This could be flexibly tuned to produce everything necessary for such a long journey, including vital medicines, vaccines, food components or anything else you might need on the way.
Right now these ideas are more in the realm of science fiction than science fact and in need of financial and political encouragement in order to become reality, but they are intriguing. It’s exciting to see researchers beginning to think about how to get these SynBio systems to be more responsive to these kinds of future-focused tasks.
If you’d like to know more about CRISPR/Cas9 licensing for your innovation, you can chat to us in person at BioEurope Autumn in November. And in the meantime, you can always reach out to the team through our website.