If you were to look inside the cells of all living things, you would find a common code in the form of DNA. In talking about code, we tend to immediately think of the digital code associated with computers, but DNA, the blueprint of life, is a biological code that is not so different. Where computer code uses 0’s and 1’s to program software to execute a task, our biological code uses A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s to program cells to accomplish specific functions necessary for life.
Now, a biotech company by the name of Ginkgo Bioworks is applying to synthetic biology the same principles of computer programming that companies like Microsoft
Simply put, synthetic biology is the field of biology that manipulates and reprograms the DNA, or biological code, of living organisms to generate an alternative natural product.
As Dr. Jason Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, explains this week on A Second Opinion podcast, we can find synthetic biology quietly hidden all around us from the food industry to the fashion world. For example, Burger King’s meatless Impossible Burger that “bleeds” like meat was “enabled by a pretty magical component from synthetic biology which is an animal protein without the animal,” Kelly explains. Using the power of this new field of science, the code for the animal hemoglobin protein was coded into yeast, creating a veggie burger that has the smell, taste, and consistency of a traditional beef burger.
More recently, Ginkgo customer Genomatica partnered with Lululemon to create biosynthesized plant-based nylon fabric that eliminates the microplastics that appear in other nylon and microfiber fabrics, creating a more environmentally-friendly yoga pant.
Ginkgo is pushing the field of biology toward the engineering industry, and has labeled itself “The Organism Company” with the mission to program cells like we have been programming computers. Drawing comparisons to Apple, Kelly broke down the Ginkgo vision for me, where Ginkgo aims to serve as the horizontal platform for synthetic biology products (much like the App Store on Apple devices). Ginkgo does not bring products to market, rather they work with companies to develop the desired synthesized DNA code and then charge a royalty when the physical good produced from that code is made available. This innovative approach allows companies, including startups who struggle to afford the multimillion-dollar cost to set up a lab, the freedom to outsource the time and expense of arduous lab work and grants to Ginkgo and the flexibility to operate in a variety of biotech markets.
The current pandemic has been pivotal in showcasing the importance of synthetic biology and DNA manipulation. Synthetic biology is providing more efficient ways of producing mRNA vaccines, with a recent Ginkgo partnership creating an engineered cell that creates a key enzyme used in mRNA vaccine manufacturing that is 10-times more efficient and has the potential to lower costs and speed up production.
Covid has also provided an opportunity for Ginkgo to think about the future of biosecurity, specifically through the lenses of detection and prevention. On this topic Kelly told me, “We are entering the era of being able to design and program biology, and, I would say, we just have evidence that our biosecurity capabilities in the U.S. are not very good.” The CEO would like to see a “muscling up” around biosecurity for both national security reasons as well as for public health reasons. He adds, “It’s the topic of the moment and the U.S. should not waste the next 18 months where the pandemic is still an issue in the U.S., and importantly worldwide, to build that.”
Ginkgo is using these next 18 months to build up biosecurity measures via the concept of surveillance testing. “You know what viruses are potentially flowing through your computer right now, but you have no idea what’s in the air.” Kelly feels that we need more widespread, routine Covid-19 testing, which he hopes will allow decision makers to have access to more information. He adds, “when a governor has to make a decision about how to contain the virus, they don’t have to close down a whole state. They can close down a town, or a city, or a school, or a classroom because they know exactly where the virus is. They are not having to do gross interventions that ruin everyone’s life, they are able to make targeted interventions.”
It has been easy to see the direct impact that a biotech company like Ginkgo has had during the pandemic, from the biological monitoring methods they are currently working on to the production of an enzyme allowing for more efficient creation of mRNA vaccines. The broader scope of a company like this cannot be ignored. Kelly estimates that his platform roughly doubles in efficiency each year, tripling the output and halving the cost per project annually. Ginkgo is adding nearly 30 new products to its repertoire this year with the goal of producing up to 500 new products during 2025. It’s valued at an impressive $15 billion and has been listed for the past three years on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 List of fast-growing companies.
Where the computer age disrupted the information-based industries, the Ginkgo synthetic biology platform is completely altering the physical goods industry. When I asked about future markets Kelly responded, “Engineered cells… they don’t move information around; they move atoms around. So, the industries they disrupt won’t be the information-based industries, they will be the physical good industries—and all of them. From building materials to food to pharma to electronics, they are all biotech industries—they just don’t know it yet.” Synthetic biology has the potential to usher in the next industrial revolution, changing the future of food to make it more sustainable and plant-based, engineering biofuel to reduce oil and gas dependance, and transforming medical treatments to effectively target various diseases, and Ginkgo Bioworks is at the forefront.
Dr. Jason Kelly joined me on A Second Opinion podcast for September 6, 2021. For more of Dr. Kelly’s insights into how to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and improve access to mental healthcare, listen to Episode 143 of A Second Opinion.