The following article is an opinion piece written by Eric Rhodes. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
Since my earliest exposure to synthetic biology, I have seen the field change dramatically. What was once a field primarily associated with the production of human medicines is now a diverse and thriving industry that tackles some of society’s biggest challenges, from producing enough food to feed a growing population to mitigating climate change.
I was lucky enough to attend SynBioBeta in Oakland earlier this year—the first in-person version of this meeting since 2019—where I saw firsthand the wide range of solutions being developed in synthetic biology. Here’s what caught my eye.
The power of mushrooms
One of the first things I noticed from this year’s conference was the incredible range of applications using fungi. Mushrooms have been used in food products for many years, including traditional ones fermented foods as well as meat substitutes such as Quorn. Now, with advances in synthetic biology, the uses of fungi are expanding into exciting new areas.
Materials company Eco-friendly showed their work using a mycelium – a sponge consisting of a mass of filamentous fibers – to create a range of sustainable materials, including a cruelty-free leather alternative and plastic-free, compostable packaging foams.
Through a separate company MyForestFoods, the same technology is used to produce gourmet alternatives to meat. Their meatless bacon product MyBacon has become almost synonymous with the real thing and sold out of every production run when it was released in November 2020. The tasters given away at SynBioBeta were also flying off the plates!
Mushrooms are also used for larger scale projects. Academic project Hub for biotechnologies in the built environment (HBBE) described his ambitious goal of creating “living buildings” that respond to the natural environment, can metabolize their own waste, and generate sustainable energy.
Their special interest group Mycology for architecture focuses specifically on the use of mushrooms as a construction material, thanks to their shock-absorbing, durable, water- and fire-resistant and insulating properties. They use mycelium to create a range of structures including panels, tiles, flooring and even furniture.
I was also interested in seeing how the natural properties of mushrooms could be engineered to help deal with environmental waste. alonia demonstrated its technology using fungi to break down the carbon-fluorine bonds that are responsible for the resistance of PFAS – chemicals that can remain in the environment for thousands of years. Fungi do this naturally, but with synthetic biology the process can be greatly accelerated.
Sustainability at the fore
Sustainability was a hot topic at SynBioBeta, with many companies demonstrating their approaches to solving the problems of environmental degradation.
A company for innovative bio-solutions Biomason exhibited their “concrete” blocks made using naturally occurring bacteria that create cement-like materials. What in nature would take thousands of years can now happen in days, without the carbon footprint of traditional cement.
Synthetic biology is also being used to create more sustainable consumer materials. A carbon negative company Ruby presented their work using cell-free enzymatic synthesis to create viscose fibers for the fashion industry responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions.
The use of CO2 as raw material was a popular topic including work by Cemvita factorywhose microbial pathways aim to remove a gigaton of CO2 of the atmosphere by 2050. I was particularly interested to learn about their work in bioharvest. They are currently engineering microorganisms to increase metal removal during bioremediation. These microbes also use CO2 for their growth, making the process overall carbon negative.
Future Frontiers in Synthetic Biology
On a personal note, SynBioBeta is the first in-person conference I’ve attended since the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s been fantastic to see so much growth in this area. The conference was buzzing and the energy from the many different groups of people in attendance was invigorating.
As CEO of ERS GenomicsI am particularly interested in how CRISPR gene editing is fueling the development of synthetic biology, and I was happy to see so many attendees excited about the applications this technology makes possible.
Five to ten years ago, synthetic biology was an important but relatively niche biotechnology tool. Today it is a thriving industry. CRISPR has been instrumental in catalyzing this transition and has become an essential tool for companies in this space. CRISPR by no means created synthetic biology, but it certainly took the field to new heights and helped solve new problems.
Looking to the future, I am confident that the field of synthetic biology will continue to grow in parallel with the early days of the life sciences industry. But unlike early advances in the life sciences, the problems we must solve now are different. Attention has shifted from human health to the enormous environmental and sustainability challenges we face.
The United States is in 43rd placerd in the latest Environmental Performance Index, we must do more to protect our precious natural environment. But these problems transcend borders, which is why I was so excited to see groups from around the world present their diverse solutions using the shared tools of synthetic biology.
After attending SynBioBeta, I am hopeful that these tools, including the precision gene editing made possible by CRISPR, will provide the solutions we need—helping us produce more food without using more land, create more sustainable materials, reduce pressure on natural resources, and remove toxins from the environment – sooner rather than later.
About the author:
Eric Rhodes is the CEO of ERS Genomics.