Materials are all around us—it’s the very stuff that our stuff is made of. Our clothes, cars, phones, the furniture in our homes, and the houses themselves—everything is made from materials. Most of us don’t even pause to think about where those materials come from. Unfortunately, the current paradigm of materials production and use contributes to pollution, inequality, waste, and resource depletion. And as the world’s population grows, these problems compound. Luckily, synthetic biology is developing solutions for this growing crisis.
According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), at the start of 2023, there were 79 synthetic biology companies focusing on materials applications, which have attracted almost $8 billion in private investment. Synthetic biology has the potential to reform materials supply chains and disrupt multiple industries, from fashion and consumer goods to mining and construction. Materials produced by genetically engineered organisms or using bio-based processes and feedstocks can not only upgrade the supply chains but create entirely new products.
Many of these innovative technologies were featured at the Biofabricate Paris Summit that took place recently in Paris, France. The event brought together innovators, brands, and investors working together to make the dream of a bio-based world a reality. If you missed it, you will be able to meet many of them at SynBioBeta 2024. In the meantime, let’s review some of the main areas where synthetic biology can make a material impact and highlight the pioneering companies and organizations working on bringing this vision to life.
Fashion is the industry where synthetic biology is poised to make the biggest impact. Textile and fashion is the third most polluting industry in the world after fossil fuels and agriculture. It contributes to about 10% of globally emitted CO2, but that’s not the only issue. Sourcing and processing materials, as well as making them into the final products, requires heavy water use and generates toxic pollutants. The “fast fashion” industry generates an artificial demand for new products that end up in landfills every year. The waste and pollution predominantly affect the countries of “the Global South,” which is where the majority of production occurs.
Fashion consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this and putting pressure on brands to create more sustainable and transparent supply chains, reduce waste, and extend the life of our clothes and accessories. This push towards sustainability is expected to bring $20 to $30 billion of investment per year to develop sustainable alternatives. Synbio innovators are tackling the challenge from multiple directions, including creating substitutes for petroleum-derived synthetic materials that are biodegradable and made from renewable resources, replacing natural products like animal leathers with more sustainable alternatives, as well as improving the sustainability of dying processes.
On the animal materials front, synthetic biology startups have devised an ingenious solution: mushroom leather. Compared to animal hides, mushroom leather has a significantly lower environmental footprint. Its performance is on par with traditional leather, which is why it can be used as a drop-in replacement for even the most luxurious items like designer handbags. In 2018, Bolt Threads debuted its mycelium-based leather, bringing in big-name brands like Stella McCartney and Adidas; last year, however, the production was paused. Today, Mycoworks, which has secured a collaboration with Hermès and Ecovative with their Forager™ hides, is leading the mycelium leather movement.
Modern Meadow has proposed a different approach to making leather substitutes: engineered animal proteins produced in yeast. In collaboration with Italian textile and materials supplier Limonta, the company has created a range of responsibly produced Bio-Tex™ materials that cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 90%. One example, which was unveiled during SynBioBeta 2023, is Modern Meadow’s patented BioVERA™ biomaterial that mimics traditional leather, suede, or chamois. The Tory Burch Ella Tote bag made using Modern Meadow’s Bio-Alloy™ technology is already available on store shelves.
Other startups are looking beyond leather to create novel composite materials with unique properties. Bucha Bio is a New York-based startup that is making drop-in replacements for leather and plastics as well as composite materials based on bacterial nanocellulose and other biopolymers. The material’s properties can be customized by changing the ratios of bio-based reagents to create fire-resistant or glow-in-the-dark composites. Modern Synthesis is also using nanocellulose technology and has partnered with fashion brand Ganni to produce a nanocellulose bag with zero fossil fuel input that will debut in 2025.
Synbio companies are also developing fibers for textiles that are stronger, lighter, and more sustainable. Some are going after existing markets, like nylon, which is a $22 billion industry. Geno’s bio-based nylon is used by brands like Lululemon. Others, like the Japanese company Spiber, Inc., are creating novel ultra-high-performance fibers using spider silk proteins as an inspiration. Their MOON PARKA, developed in collaboration with The North Face, was presented in 2019. Material lifecycle is another consideration. A startup called Werewool is making engineered bio-based and biodegradable fibers, while Bloom Labs is turning waste into sustainable alternatives to fibers and plastics using bio-manufacturing
In addition to replacing the materials themselves, many synbio startups are working on improving dying technologies. Dying processes are water-intensive. They involve harsh chemicals and heavy metals and produce toxic waste. A Copenhagen-based startup, Octarine Bio, is replacing petrochemical-derived dyes with non-toxic yeast-expressed alternatives. Colorifix is introducing more sustainable synthetic biology approaches for adding durable colors to textiles and materials. While natural pigments are less toxic than synthetic dyes, they are often too expensive to be used commercially—unless they can be made with synbio. Last year, bio-based ingredients producer Conagen began production of a rare marine purple pigment via precision fermentation.
Synthetic biology is transforming not only the world of fashion but other types of consumer goods. One of the earliest successes of the industry was the successful scale-up of biological production of 1,4-butanediol (BDO) by Geno. BDO is a bulk chemical used in innumerable products, from shoes to plastics in cars and electronics. One of the reasons for the commercial success of bio-BDO is that it is cost-competitive, not only a drop-in replacement, but also comes with an estimated 90% reduction in carbon emissions.
Checkerspot is another great example of the successful adoption of a consumer biotech product. Their flagship product—skis made from materials produced by microalgae—became a brand called WNDR Alpine. Not only are these skis sustainable, but they also offer a performance advantage over existing materials. Checkerspot is also bringing consumer biotech to the masses with its DIY polyurethane Pollinator™ casting kit.
Packaging contributes a significant amount of resources to the product lifecycle. The biggest challenge to the adoption of new technologies is making packaging both cost-effective and sustainable. Ecovative is approaching this challenge by making compostable packaging from hemp and mycelium. These ingenious solutions are available in the USA and Canada through the Mushroom Packaging distributor and in Europe and the UK through the Magical Mushroom Company®.
While mushroom packaging is a creative solution, many applications still require drop-in replacements for existing materials. A Mexican company, Bioplaster, is working on creating algae-based materials like water-soluble plastic films, thermoplastic pellets, biodegradable yarn, and bio-styrofoam. Mango Materials is also making PHA-based films, which are biodegradable in many environments, including the ocean. Similarly, Ourobio is using a fermentation process to convert the byproducts of the dairy industry into PHA packaging materials.
The construction industry is number six on the list of industries that generate the biggest environmental footprint. Specifically, concrete, the most widely-used material in construction, contributes heavily to our CO2 emissions and water use due to the way cement is produced. Solugen, a Houston-based company that specializes in making carbon-negative chemicals, is making concrete more sustainable using enzyme chemistry and renewable feedstocks. Their Relox concrete admixtures are biodegradable and non-toxic and work to decrease the use of cement and water in concrete.
Biomason has created a commercially available biocement Biolith®, developed with support from the United States Department of Defense. Another company, Prometheus Materials, spun out of the University of Colorado Boulder, is making alternative "bio-cement" inspired by the same process corals and oysters use to build their shells. Their process combines microalgae with other natural components to form a zero-carbon bio-cement and bio-concrete.
Others are taking the idea of using synthetic biology to make the construction industry more green one step further. Basilisk is making “self-healing concrete” by embedding special limestone-producing bacteria into concrete so that they can repair cracks. Another visionary startup, Pneuma Bio, wants to create living materials with photosynthesizing algae embedded in them. These technologies give a whole new meaning to “green living.”
Substituting organic materials with bio-based alternatives is an intuitive solution. However, biology can even help with sourcing inorganic materials, such as precious metals and minerals used in electronics, solar panels, and many other products. Synthetic biology companies Cemvita and Allonnia are developing bio-based technologies for sustainable mining solutions. For example, Cemvita’s Endolith™ solutions help extract lithium and copper used in clean energy technologies. And Allonnia is proposing using “rock-eating microbes” to extract iron from iron ore to help improve efficiency and reduce the carbon emissions of this process.
Raw-materials extraction and refinement are responsible for the majority of the total CO2 emissions. Simply replacing extracted raw materials with bio-based alternatives would help restructure global supply chains and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, some companies are going a step further and creating technologies that can actually sequester atmospheric carbon.
LanzaTech is leading the way in creating carbon-negative materials using a technology that allows them to capture greenhouse gases that are byproducts of various industries and convert them into valuable biomaterials. Last year, fashion giant H&M produced a sportswear capsule collection made with LanzaTech’s polyester made from recycled carbon. LanzaTech also partnered with an adventure travel brand, Craghoppers, to launch a sustainable fleece collection, CO2Renu, made from 30% recycled carbon-derived PET and 70% PET from recycled plastic bottles.
LanzaTech may be the biggest name in carbon sequestration, but not the only one. Cemvita is another producer of carbon-negative materials with its eCO2™ technology that uses various waste streams and carbon dioxide to produce valuable materials like proteins and plastics. Synbio startup iMicrobes is converting gases like carbon dioxide and methane into biodegradable plastic. Additionally, Pneuma Bio has proposed sequestering CO2 by actually growing living carbon-capturing photosynthetic microalgae embedded inside materials.
New technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming synthetic biology and, with it, bringing exciting new possibilities for biomaterials. Nanofabrication is improving the precision of materials manufacturing; 3D printing (including ultrasound 3D printing) is expanding the range of possible design architectures; genomically recoded organisms allow us to introduce non-canonical amino acids into polypeptides; and AI-aided protein design enables scientists to encode new functions into protein-based materials.
We can use these technologies—separately or together—to create entirely new classes of materials that combine biological precision and functionality with the ease of manufacturing.
It is no longer about just improving the sustainability of materials by mimicking existing properties, like replacing animal leathers. Synthetic biology companies like Solena Materials and Cambrium are breaking traditional limitations with AI-designed materials that introduce new functions into familiar proteins. In today’s world, our imagination becomes the limit of what is possible.