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Are We Graduating from Reading to Writing? The First SynBioBeta Conference

We hear a lot about how DNA sequencing is changing the world. Our ability to read the code of life is taking us a level deeper in our understanding of the human body and of the other life forms around us. Sequencing is all about “reading.” Occasionally, not very often, we’ll get someone to the program who talks about “writing” the code of life. Isn’t this where we’re going? To a world where, OK, now we understand the code, let’s write our own.

Yes, nature has given us an incomprehensible diversity of food and materials to make us happy. But now we’re graduating from the class of reading, of using and at times manipulating what’s already there, to the class of writing where we make new life forms which can do even more for us. Ask any scientist what synthetic biology is, and you’ll get just as many answers as you do to the question, who/what is God. Last week I attended the inaugural conference for synthetic biology entrepreneurs, the SynBioBeta conference held in Menlo Park, CA. (The site will be a resource for synbio startups and stay up through the year.)

For today’s show, I interviewed the founder and creator of the conference, John Cumbers, and the Director of Research Programs at Amyris, Tim Gardner, a speaker at the event. Listen to their interviews to see how they define synthetic biology. 

“Biology is just another code,” we heard mid-morning from Omri Amirav-Drory. He’s the founder of Genome Compiler Corp, a new venture developing the software that really democratizes creation itself. With his software, you can go in and build a genome. That’s all. I’d like some of this, some of that, and a few of those, please. With a few of these thrown in for good measure. It appears the path to the future will also be a matter of what we sit and do every day: cut, copy, and paste. With colored boxes for different genes, the software looks so simple that even I could build myself a cute little genome. It’s easy to see at the SynBioBeta how the imagination can take flight into a world of synthetic possibilities. And some of this field belongs to what Tim Gardner from Amyris calls the “sci-fi crowd. “Well, if you’re not in the sci-fi crowd, which crowd are you in?” I ask Gardner as we walk to a quiet room to record his interview. “My passion comes in working on problems that we face now, everyday. At Amyris we’re working for the day when you can pull your car up to the gas station and choose biofuel as an option, at no more expense than the current market price.” Gardner’s low key manner grounds his practical approach. (For more about Amyris, see the interview.)

SynBioBeta

Slide from John Cumbers' Presentation at SynBioBeta

Other highlights from the show for me were first, the explosion of startups in the field. To begin the conference, Cumbers put up a slide showing, with a virtually exponential curve, the number of synbio startups over the last few years. I asked several of the founders whether synthetic biology was more some answers looking for solutions.

It was evident from the presentations that to succeed many of these fledgling companies had pivoted at least once to new markets. Company founders replied that it would go back and forth. They entered into a project via one application, found a technology, then when the first application didn’t work out, looked around for another way to commercialize. In the case of Amyris, they are going into a range of markets, from fuels to perfumes, all with just one molecule.

Cumbers says that we’re seeing the transition synthetic biology is making from being pretty much exclusively research to the commercial world. Michael Koeris is a co-founder of Sample6 Technologies based in Boston. “We had to pivot twice, now it looks like it’s working,” the entrepreneur told me at the break. The company is engineering viruses that attack bacteriophages to detect bacterial contamination in agricultural applications. Michael’s colleage, Tim Lu, another co-founder was profiled in this BBC article earlier in the year.

I found the panel on CAD tools for synbio most intriguing. Carlos Alguin from Autodesk Research spoke. His company is responsible for a great deal of 3D modeling, including the work for the blockbuster movie, Avatar. It wasn’t clear how Autodesk’s platform would practically aid the synbio businesses in the room, but this is was not a conference about connecting every dot on the spot. “What will the next generation of designers be able to do when they grow up with these tools,” Carlos provoked the crowd. It’s a great question.