Just when we are getting accustomed to artificial intelligence in our daily lives, get ready for a new disruptor: synthetic biology, or syn-bio, the design and engineering of biological systems to create and improve processes and products. It promises to become a manufacturing paradigm of the future.
Recent advances in molecular, cell, and systems biology have enabled scientists to shift their focus from research of syn-bio to design and engineering, creating some truly mind blowing applications. By using microorganisms, for example, companies can now manufacture an infinite number of things, cell by cell, from scratch. This offers new ways of producing almost everything that humans consume, from flavors and fabrics to foods and fuels.
By the end of the decade, syn-bio may be used extensively in manufacturing industries that account for more than a third of global output, according to BCG Henderson Institute, Boston Consulting Group’s strategy think tank. Various sources estimate that the syn-bio market today is about $10 billion and is expected to reach $30 billion in the next five years.
Artificial intelligence, meanwhile, will speed up research into syn-bio processes, identifying promising molecules and their likely reactions from the vast universe of possible molecules, both natural and manmade. Generative AI, which creates new data after absorbing amounts of knowledge greater than any human could possibly absorb, will come up with new solutions whether it be novel materials or fresh approaches to solving old problems.
Microorganisms will be increasingly important to building a sustainable world, but developing them will marry wet labs with computer simulations, starting with in silico before committing to in vivo, in vitro, or in situ.
Those processes will challenge incumbents in sectors such as health and beauty, medical devices, and electronics, just as the pharmaceutical and food industries already have been challenged.
Other industries, including chemicals, textiles, fashion, and water, could face cost-based competition from syn-bio alternatives. In the longer term, syn-bio is likely to impact sectors such as mining, electricity, and even construction.
Syn-bio start-ups are already engineering more sustainable products that consume fewer resources and don’t use fossil fuels or their derivatives. These products are more durable, generate less waste after use, and are usually healthier.
As we move into an era where sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in consumer purchasing decisions, those who can harness the power of syn-bio to create innovative, sustainable products and processes will have a significant competitive advantage.
Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks and German pharmaceutical giant Bayer have joined together to engineer microbial products that help crops such as corn, wheat, and rice convert nitrogen into forms they can use more efficiently. This reduces the amount of fertilizer required, in turn reducing the environmental impact of farming.
In the pulp and paper industry, companies like Novozymes are using enzymes produced by microbial fermentation to cut water consumption, reduce the amount of wood used per ton of product and minimize the carbon footprint of the sector. Notpla is using microorganism-based biomass like seaweed to make packaging. And modifying a microbe’s metabolism can even transform plant waste into biofuel.
The textile industry is already undergoing change due to bio-engineered dyes and processing chemicals. Start-ups such as PILI use enzymes to convert carbon from renewable sources into molecules that can be used to produce dyes, reducing waste and by-products. Since textile makers can use syn-bio dyes without changing their production systems, organic dyes are poised to take over the $33 billion market in the next five years.
Another industry that is expected to be transformed is the 1,4-Butanediol industry. BDO, as it is commonly known, is a colorless viscous liquid used as a solvent in the manufacture of plastics, elastic fibers, and polyurethanes. The leading BDO manufacturers currently produce over 1 million metric tons a year, using hydrocarbon feedstocks. But, several syn-bio firms have been working to produce bio-BDO from sustainable sources. If all BDO manufacturers switched to making bio-BDO, it would stop the emission of more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of millions of people.
One of the most intriguing applications on the horizon is DNA data storage, a technology that uses DNA to store digital information. It is still in development, but with over 11 trillion gigabytes of data already in existence and at least 2.5 million gigabytes added each day, it could offer a solution to the world’s growing data storage problems.
CEOs in all industries should start preparing for syn-bio now, approaching it as they would any other disruptive technology by forecasting its immediate development and long-term evolution. As with digital technologies, syn-bio will force companies to rethink their business models, make substantial R&D investments, and navigate complex partnerships and joint ventures with start-ups at syn-bio’s leading edge.
Significant challenges remain in moving from experiments to at-scale solutions for many of the applications, but AI is helping solve the scaling problems.
Can you imagine a world where microbes start to replace machines?