The Greatest Challenges Facing Synthetic Biology Are No Longer Technical

Synbiobeta 2023 marked the transition of synthetic biology from a technology to a product. That transition is a complex one, especially when the ultimate customer is you
Food & Nutrition
Emerging Technologies
Jenna E Gallegos, PhD
June 6, 2023

Synbiobeta 2023 marked the transition of synthetic biology from a technology to a product. That transition is a complex one, especially when the ultimate customer is you.

Consumer goods—from food to textiles to cosmetics to tires to gadgets—have a huge impact on the health of people and the planet. Synthetic biologists have brilliant ideas about how to reduce that impact. But the space separating the technology and the impact is a vast one with many stakeholders. Each of those stakeholders is a different audience that synthetic biologists must reach. The SynBioBeta 2023 conference highlighted just how challenging that task will be. Fortunately, the people working on it are no strangers to complexity.

“Twenty-five years ago, we were working on engineering bacteria to blink (GFP), and people had no idea why,” said Ron Weiss, professor of biological engineering at MIT, in an opening panel.

Synthetic biology started as a toolkit. A toolkit for carefully tuning the complex circuitry of biology. By applying the same basic approach, synthetic biologists can produce outcomes as diverse as life itself. That diversity was on full display at SynBioBeta, with synthetic biologists hawking everything from mushroom leathers to algae plastics to cell-free biologics.

Mark Kotter, Founder, (Credit: Patrick T. Powers)

“We are chameleons,” said Mark Kotter, founder of The synthetic biology tech stack can apply to so many different things that the creativity in how to deploy it has exploded.

But what are we accomplishing?

“In twenty years of working in this area, there have been so many fantastic technological breakthroughs. The question is, are they going to have an impact on the world?” asked Nathan Pumplin of Norfolk Healthy Produce. He understands the uphill battle ahead of him. That’s because Norfolk Healthy Produce works in a space historically hostile to biotechnology—food.

For synthetic biologists working in the pharma space, their customers are other scientists: doctors, drug developers, the FDA. For those producing consumer goods—whether bioplastics, cosmetics, food, food additives, or textiles—their customer base is a lot broader and less technical.

For synthetic biology to truly impact consumer goods, we’ve got to reach farmers, grocers, chefs, tanneries, clothing designers and manufacturers, personal care companies, pretty much anybody who makes or sells stuff—and, of course—consumers.

Fortunately, we’re standing on the shoulder of giants, or rather, learning from giant mistakes. In the traditional ag-biotech industry, one product is king. Roundup-ready commodity crops that resist herbicides completely changed agriculture. Many of these changes were for the better. Herbicide-resistant crops allowed farmers to reduce tilling (a boon for soil), use less toxic herbicides, and reduce costs. But the benefits were only marketed to and directly experienced by farmers.

That led to a huge backlash against genetically modified crops from consumers and special interest groups. We’re only now recovering from that backlash, decades after the crops first broke ground. The synthetic biology community is not keen to repeat that mistake. The key is to use synthetic biology to create products that benefit producers, consumers, and the planet.

“Let’s first make a good product, and the rest flows from that,” said Ian Miller from Pairwise Bio, a company that used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to produce a mild-tasting mustard green. Their salads no doubt pair well with the antioxidant-rich transgenic purple tomatoes created by Norfolk Healthy Produce.

“We started getting hate mail…” noted Jessica Louie, Chief Technology Officer at Norfolk…” or really,  I should say angry fan mail.” When news started circulating about their tomatoes, something strange happened. Consumers were reaching out demanding the purple tomatoes at their local grocers and restaurants!

Zach Abbott, Founder and CEO, Zbiotics (Credit: Patrick T. Powers)

Zachary Abbott has had similar experiences. His company, Zbiotics, makes a genetically modified live probiotic designed to help prevent hangovers. He described an encounter with a woman who was vehemently anti-GMO. After he told her about his product, which sports a “proudly GMO” label, she asked where she could buy it!

“Imagine you’re eating a pitless cherry, plum, and apricot. And they’re in a bag like m&ms,” remarked Miller. “All of this is possible through plant breeding if we only had 5,000 years. Now it could be possible in a generation.”

Given the response to purple tomatoes, consumers would no doubt be lined up at the door. But consumers aren’t the only audience to consider. There’s a long path between the lab and the doorstep.

“We need to make products that big food companies can easily implement—drag and drop with existing products,” said Shannon Theobald, Founder of FoodTech Advising.

While some probiotics and produce can be sold directly to consumers, many other synthetic biology products with massive potential impact must follow a more circuitous path. For instance,  Modern Meadow’s recently announced Bio-VERA™ vegan leathers contain 90% sustainable content, and Forager™ Hides from Ecovative is 100% made from mushrooms.

Yet, before they can adorn consumers, these vegan leathers must pass through tanners and companies producing leather apparel. While the consumer may care about the sustainability/humanitarian benefit, tanners care that Forager’s tan-ready hides grow in days, and apparel companies care that their fiber orientation is customizable.

Some companies, such as Checkerspot, have gotten creative with bridging the gap for consumers. Take, for example, their algae-based polyurethane. They sell kits that artists on Etsy can use to mold their renewable plastics into specialty products like “vinyl” records and jewelry.

Members of the SynBioBeauty industry are also reaching out to the “middle man” by educating stylists about the benefits of synthetic biology-produced beauty products.

Still, most of the synthetic biology-based consumer products making headway today are specialty items.

“Consumers are willing to pay more money (a green premium) for specialty products, but not commodity products,” explained Adrienne Huston Davenport,  Managing Director at BASF. “When it comes to making changes to achieve carbon neutrality for a public company, you’ve also got to consider your shareholders.”

Kasia Gora, Co-founder and CTO of Scifi Foods, a cultured meat company, agreed with that idea, stating that “the biggest challenge is getting to cost parity with conventional products.”

The potential for synthetic biology to improve the health of people and the planet is shockingly huge. “Biology is really good at transferring renewable carbon into structural materials,” said Deepak Dugar, President of Visolis Bio. Interestingly though, he went on to note that in some cases, the molecules produced can be applied in vastly different ways. “The molecule we make for skincare is the exact same molecule we would deploy to the rubber market.”

Yet the stakeholders involved in producing and purchasing tires and tightening creams are worlds different. Now, if synthetic biology is truly going to make an impact on the planet, especially without cost-parity to non-renewables, the industry is going to need to market itself effectively to a lot of different audiences.

That’s why marketing and messaging entered the agenda at SynBioBeta for the first time this year. Next year, it’s expected to play an even bigger role. In an industry that is ever-evolving, you can always count on new trends emerging. Synthetic biology is a lot of things—engineering, molecular biology, biomanufacturing, microbiology—now we are entering the age where it must become a social science as well.

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