synthetic biology

RNA Therapeutics: A New Paradigm for Drug Development? Tim Mercer, BASE Lab, U of Queensland

Has the pandemic unleashed the molecule of RNA to be the new future of drug development?

Tim Mercer is the Director of the BASE Lab at the University of Queensland which has recently become one of Australia’s leading national facilities for the manufacture and research of RNA technologies. Tim is the next guest in our series on enzymatic DNA synthesis which he says is "a quantum shift” in our ability to synthesize DNA.

Tim then goes on to explore the future of mRNA vaccines and other RNA therapeutics.

"There is a change in how the drugs are developed. It allows us to target diseases in ways that current drug development has been unable to address.”

For example, Tim discusses mRNA cancer vaccines and vaccines for rare diseases that are truly customized treatments.

"We can deliver a corrected version of a gene to the patient which is then expressed and translated in their cells and produces the corrected protein to clear the toxic metabolic products and essentially treat the disease. We're designing a particular drug to treat the disease."

If this isn’t trippy enough, we finish with a discussion of applications in synthetic biology. For Tim, it’s all the same thing whether it’s clinical applications or agriculture or industry.

“It’s all a spectrum,” he says.

The Invention of Enzymatic DNA Synthesis with Sylvain Gariel, DNA Script

The DNA synthesis space is seeing some real creativity and disruption this past year. One newcomer, in particular, is shaking things up.

Sylvain Gariel is the co-founder and chief operating officer of DNA Script, who has recently launched the world’s first benchtop enzymatic DNA synthesizer. In today's show, Sylvain, co-inventor of the new system, tells how he met his co-inventors at a French gas company and came to invent a whole new way of writing DNA.

“We spent a ton of time at the bench doing genetic engineering. And we started thinking, we are incredibly good at reading DNA, but we are still very inefficient at writing DNA. And the dream became very logical and very simple. What if you had a benchtop system that would be just like an Illumina MiSeq that would do all of that DNA work for you. That’s the dream, right?”

And that’s what they did. Voila! DNA Script's SYNTAX. It’s a remarkable story of scientists having a dream and executing on it to improve a technology that had been stagnant for years.

Today we get into the details. What is the bench top workflow, the turnaround time, the throughput? What are the hurdles for the market which has become used to ordering their oligos from providers the past twenty years? What is the company hearing from their customers a few months into the launch?

Join us as we dive deeper into this new technology for writing DNA.

Twist Bioscience: A New Kind of DNA Synthesis Company

“DNA is changing everything for the better,” says today’s guest, Emily Leproust, CEO of Twist Bioscience. Twist has emerged at the heart of what a New York Times Magazine write-up recently headlined The Gene Synthesis Revolution

For years, DNA synthesis plodded along as the straightforward “boring" industry underlying much more exciting work. It was the foundation of biotech and drug development and synthetic biology, yes, but what was there new to achieve with synthesizing plain old oligos?

Emily and her company have turned this paradigm upside down with a dynamic new model for what a DNA synthesis company might look like, being at the center of and affecting many new ventures and partnerships this past year. Early in 2022, they have announced a new method of DNA synthesis to enable better DNA storage—we dive into this early on in the program—and a new partnership with Pacific Biosciences. And late last year Twist spun out a drug development company based on their own research.

These are great times to be “Twisters!"

George Church and Ben Lamm on the Launch of Colossal Biosciences

According to scientists, 30,000 species per year are going extinct. That’s 6 an hour, 150 per day. Up to one half of all species could be extinct by 2050.

These are facts gleaned from the website of the company Colossal, the new commercial venture launched this last September by Harvard geneticist George Church and Texas entrepreneur Ben Lamm. While the goal of the company is ostensibly to de extinct the wooly mammoth—a project which has long gone underfunded in George’s lab—the company has a much larger vision of developing new scientific tools, advancing de extinction for many species, and catapulting forward the science of conservation.

"We’re not limited to wooly mammoth genes. We can harvest all kinds of elephants, living and extinct, from all over the world and all the way back to a million years ago. And we’re not even limited to that: we can use synthetic biology to make them virus-resistant, to control their tusk length, to make them larger or taller.”

That’s George talking with Ben on today’s show about how the name of the company represents their larger project.

"We wanted to do so much more than mammoths. We felt like this problem of climate change and the loss of biodiversity was a colossal problem. So the word kept coming up over and over again. And we thought it also gave use enough breadth from a brand perspective that we could do a lot of innovation both in software and hardware tools out of the lab that Colossal encompassed our vision, the engineering, and the problem," says Ben.

How did the two meet? What will success look like for the startup? Who will their customers be? And what are the critics saying? Join us as we go behind the scenes with one of the year’s most visionary commercial ventures.

We Might Be the Comeback Kids of the Universe: Chris Mason on His Plan for the Next 500 Years

Chris Mason is back on the program for our end-of-year special. He’s Professor of Genomics, Physiology, and Biophysics at Weill Cornell School of Medicine and the author of such an outstanding book that we had to have him on the program a second time this year. Called The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, the book delivers on its title.

Chris was deeply influenced by a book of Isaac Asimov he received at the age of 15 from his parents, writing that this book “never left his head.” Join us as he shares the haunting idea he received from Asimov, his ethical and philosophical positions, as well as the outline of his plan for the next 500 years—and a lot of other scientific tidbits. Any takers for chloroskin? The book serves as a summary of Chris’s years in the field of genomics—a basic biology textbook—as well as a passionate plea to take our common future—what for some of us seems a very distant future but for Chris can seem to be moments away—more seriously.

Happy Winter Solstice, fellow Earthlings!

Inside the World of Genome Engineering at Amyris with Kirsten Benjamin, VP of R&D

If a company knows genome engineering, that would be Emeryville based Amyris, the Bay Area's crown jewel for synthetic biology. Founded back in 2003, the company first worked on creating biofuels from yeast. Today they have retooled their platform to produce a diversified line of consumer products that have not only rewarded their bottom line but point the world to a model of sustainable consumer goods.

Today we talk with VP of R & D, Kristen Benjamin about the change over to the skin and beauty care products and the core ingredient of that product line, squalene, a substance that used to be farmed from shark liver. Kirsten was on the front lines of the pivot and takes us into the world of genome engineering at Amyris. New tools have made scaling up much easier today, thanks to a partnership with Inscripta for use of the new Onyx platform announced just this week.

SynBioBeta 2020 with John Cumbers

Synthetic biology was surging like perhaps no other bio-based industry when the pandemic struck, and it has had some unique weapons in its arsenal for aiding in the fight against COVID. There are the leading vaccine makers such as Moderna using synthetic biology, as well as antibody technology and CRISPR based testing. But many of the surging trends from the last year have only been made more urgent this year: small molecules, food tech, synthetic materials.

Living with a pandemic is making humans more aware of our scientific dependence.

Today, it's our annual check in with the synthetic biology space—a review of the year and a preview of the leading conference for the industry, SynBioBeta 2020. There’s no one better to do that with than founder John Cumbers. SynBioBeta 2020 takes place this September 29-October 1. And because it’s virtual, you can attend from anywhere.

Using CRISPR Genome Editing Tools, Willow Biosciences out with First Synthetic Cannabinoid

We see this new ingredient appearing advertised and in products everywhere. On the billboards, in the new shops next to our favorite restaurant, on the counters at the barbershop and when we pick up our prescriptions at the pharmacy.


It has to do with the ongoing revolution that’s happening around the country—around the world—regarding the deregulation of marijuana. But there’s another revolution that will change our consumption of cannabinoids. That of synthetic biology.

Biologists, chemists, and engineers will be providing us CBD in more pure and larger quantities at a much cheaper price synthetically than farmers will. It will come in many of the products we use, including nutraceuticals, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals.

Chris Savile joins us today. He’s the Chief Operating Officer at Willow Biosciences, a Canadian biotech company that began producing it’s first synthetic cannabinoid earlier this month. Interestingly, it is not CBD, but rather CBG or cannabigerol. Did you know there are over a hundred cannabinoids, and CBG cannot be isolated by traditionally farming?

Join us to learn how new CRISPR based whole genome editing tools are enabling a new industry to develop.

The Meteoric Rise of Twist Bioscience and the Wild Demand for DNA: Emily Leproust, CEO

In 2013 Twist Bioscience was a newcomer to a market that most of us thought was saturated, cornered, commoditized—that of synthetic DNA. But Emily Leproust and her co-founders saw something different. They saw "a big market with unhappy customers.” Today, with a radically disruptive technology, they are market dominant. Twist is a publicly traded company whose stock has doubled already once since they IPOd last year. Imagine, a DNA synthesis company going public! And then seeing their stock perform so well. This is tricky for the most hyped of tech or biotech startups.

And the demand for DNA is only going up, and dramatically up. When Twist signed a deal with Gingko Bioworks in 2017 for 1 billion bases, that single order was bigger than the entire market two years previous.

Today, for the first time the Twist CEO joins us on the program to talk about where her company came from (another planet?!) and about why there is such demand for DNA. What applications should we know most about? Is all this demand the result of hyped up investment, or are the products going to market?

“Synthetic biology is currently changing our lives and people don’t even realize it. People won’t say, 'oh that’s cool synthetic biology.' They won’t. They’ll just know they have a leather jacket. And there’s no cows harmed in the making of that leather jacket because that leather jacket was created from kampuchea and synthetic biology. And I think that’s the future of the impact of our industry.”

Genomics Going from a Passive to an Active Science: John Stuelpnagel on the “Write” Revolution

Not many people have had quite the same view on the genomics revolution as John Stuelpnagel. He co-founded Illumina, Ariosa, and Fabric Genomics (formerly Omicia). And he’s the Chairman of Fabric, 10X Genomics, and Inscripta. And not all had the foresight John did that biology would turn out to be so complex.

John is our guest today to preview and describe what he calls the new “writing” phase of genomics, which he says is already underway.

“Genomics has been mostly—and I hope I don’t offend the audience—a passive science. We’re limited by our cohort sets that we can put together. I think the next level of biological discovery is going to be where you can actively perturb the system—it’s called a cell—and then ask what kind of phenotype did we generate."

It’s a fascinating look ahead from one who not only founded some genomics tools companies, but founded several of THE genomics tools companies.