People Innovation Excellence

The Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology

Last month, synthetic biologists at Ginkgo Bioworks raised their glasses—filled with genetically modified beer—to cele­brate the launch of a new automated lab. By applying engineering principles to biology, and with the help of some nifty robotic equipment, Ginkgo has created a factory for churning out exotic life-forms, the likes of which have never before been seen on this planet.

The home brew they were drinking was an example of the potential applications of synthetic biology, a new field that builds on recent progress in genetic assembly methods. Scientists can now manufacture snippets of synthetic DNA and slip them into organisms, giving those critters strange capabilities. For example, the brewer’s yeast used to make the beer for the launch party had genes from an orange tree added to its own DNA. During the fermentation stage of the brewing process, those genes caused the yeast to produce ­valencene, an organic compound with a citrusy flavor. Speaking scientifically, it was delicious.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a hip young company based in Boston, recently raised US $100 million on the promise of finding many such useful applications for synthetic biology. It used some of that cash to build Bioworks2, the company’s vast new lab that uses robotic systems to form an assembly line for organisms.

Ginkgo needs to make microbes on a grand scale in order to find those that can function as tiny biological factories for its customers. Many of the altered organisms will be duds, but through highly organized trial and error, the bioengineers will eventually devise a microbe that turns out a desired substance—like a chemical ingredient used for perfumes, beverages, pesticides, or laundry detergents.

The company’s business model centers on the microbes themselves, not the end products. “We’re not in the business of manufacturing chemicals, flavors, or fragrances,”…[Read more]


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