Could Synthetic DNA Be the Next Tech Breakthrough?
Until recently, creating silk has been the exclusive domain of silkworms and some spiders, as well as the occasional superhero. Today, though, inside the laboratories of Bolt Threads in Emeryville, Calif., fermentation tanks use yeast, sugar—and some DNA code borrowed from spiders—to form a material that is then spun into fibers the way traditional silk, rayon, and polyester is made. The result, the company says, is fabric that is stronger than steel, stretchier than spandex, and softer than silk.
“This is a new era of materials,” says Dan Widmaier, Bolt’s CEO. Most textiles today are made from petroleum-based polyester, which is harmful to the environment when disposed of. By contrast, Bolt’s fabric will be biodegradable, the company says. As Widmaier puts it, the new material “has massive potential to change the world for the better.”
This month Bolt will undertake a make-or-break challenge: expanding its lab-size process into a commercial-scale operation for three customers, including the apparel company Patagonia. (Eventually, Bolt hopes to produce its own branded clothing.) If the company succeeds, the development will be a key marker for the emerging field called synthetic biology.
Bolt is only one startup using such technologies, which let scientists reengineer the genetics of living organisms to make products ranging from food sweeteners to “leather” to woodlike composites. Investors have taken note. Last year synthetic biology companies nabbed $1 billion from investors, including tech names like Peter Thiel, Eric Schmidt, Marc Andreessen, Max Levchin, and Jerry Yang. That’s double the amount from 2014, according to SynBioBeta, a consulting firm that tracks the industry.
There’s a reason the Silicon Valley stars are drawn to synthetic biology. DNA, made up of four nucleotide molecules in a sequence, is a code that can be edited and written—not unlike software. The commercialization of DNA sequencing (the reading of an organism’s code) and synthesis (the writing of that code) has accelerated since the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003.
In the past few years new robotics, computational biology, and gene-editing and gene-synthesis technologies have emerged to make synthetic biology efficient and cost-effective. The highly touted Crispr tool, for instance, can snip DNA sequences and insert desired features, while technology from startup Twist Bioscience speeds up gene synthesis by miniaturizing the chemical reaction on silicon. Costs are also falling fast.
“We’re decoding biology,” says Bryan Johnson, partner in the OS Fund and a vocal proponent of the field. “Life itself is becoming programmable.” Believers like Johnson offer audacious predictions. One day, they say, we’ll be able to grow tissue, cars, and houses using DNA, energy, and sunlight. Computers might be assembled out of brain cells.
Of course, more than a dollop of caution is in order. One need look back only a few years for a sobering reminder. In 2008 some startups promised to use synthetic biology to produce biofuels from pond scum. But microorganisms behaved differently in factory settings, it turned out, than in labs. When oil prices fell, several of the startups failed.
This time synthetic biology companies are focusing on materials—proponents assert they have higher margins and fewer market fluctuations than fuels—and specialty chemicals. Today the industry believes it has better tools for editing, measuring results, and automating the way chemicals and microorganisms are produced in large quantities.
A flurry of innovation is underway. In Boston, Ginkgo Bioworks churns out organisms used for new perfume fragrances and food sweeteners, using DNA code from hard-to-grow plants and extinct flowers. Says CEO and cofounder Jason Kelly: “Things have really accelerated in just the past two years.” Fueled by $154 million from investors, Ginkgo recently opened its second “foundry,” an 18,000-square-foot factory stocked with fermentation tanks, mass spectrometers, software, robots, and traditional bench biology tools to design, build, and test DNA.
Kelly says Ginkgo can cut the costs of production of these fragrances and flavors by 50% to 90%, offer customers entirely new scents for their products by mixing and matching DNA letters—and the company can do it without the environmental costs.
Take rose oil, for instance, which is used for perfumes. The plant is hard to grow, produces very little oil per plant, and is increasingly in short supply. Ginkgo’s executives request the gene code for the oil from an outside provider. Within two to six weeks, they receive a vial with a liquid DNA sample by mail. They test it, then rearrange the DNA letters and request more samples until they come up with a unique-smelling oil that could be reproduced synthetically for half the cost of traditional oils. In the past nine months, Ginkgo says, it has landed 10 new customers who placed orders for dozens of new organisms.
In Germany, a Bolt competitor called AMSilk is working to develop another spider-based fiber called biosteel for high-performance, biodegradable shoes. In Brooklyn, Modern Meadow, backed by $53 million from investors, creates “leather” using engineered cells rather than animal skins.
A company called Ecovative, based in Green Island, N.Y., is “growing” living room tables, acoustical panels, and packaging. Ecovative takes a fiber made from wood or plants, chops it up, adds mycelium (the root system in mushrooms), and lets the mycelium grow through and around the fibers. Ecovative takes that composite and uses standard presses to shape it, creating a solid surface that looks laminated. Says Ecovative CEO Eben Bayer: “I like to think of it as a new kind of wood, and you can’t get a more sustainable piece of furniture on the planet.” The Department of Defense awarded Ecovative a preliminary contract to develop “programmable materials” to grow temporary living structures for the military that are sustainable and reduce waste.
Now the synbio manufacturers have to achieve what many biofuel startups could not: transferring what works in a lab to large-scale commercial operations. “Production can be fickle and can be hard to control in a vat the size of a bus,” says Mark Bünger, who follows the sector at Lux Research.
Widmaier says making that leap to commercial production has been far more difficult for his company than establishing the complex technology to make spider silk from DNA. This month, when Bolt flips the switch on its 11,000-square-foot factory, it will draw on the expertise of more than two-dozen Ph.D. scientists, many of whom will bring lessons learned from the biofuel bust. “Now,” Widmaier says, “the real challenge begins.”
A version of this article appears in the February 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Rise of Synthetic DNA.”