Synthetic Biology: Lowering environmental impact

Submitted by Todd Smith on Tue October 17, 2017.

One of the themes of the recent @synbiobeta #sbbsf17 annual meeting (Oct 4,5 2017) was the impact of synthetic biology on making new things or making old things in new ways. From cement to food, synthetic biology is causing people to rethink the way things are made. One of the most interesting ideas is the notion of using synthetic biology to manufacture materials in a way that's more friendly to the environment.  

Through the #sbbsf17 presentations the attendees heard many applications of synthetic biology. Some of the companies are using technology to create new materials. As examples, Modern Meadow presented new ways to make leather using tissue engineering. Colorifix and Living Ink focus on dyes, and algae based inks, respectively. And, bioMason is growing cement. While the use of microbes in these applications is clearly novel, it was even more interesting to learn about each company’s environmental value proposition.

Anytime a new process for an old product is brought to market it has to improve on the status quo. Typically, improvements come from a lower cost, improved qualities, and (or) faster production. Products made through synthetic biology have to meet these same goals, but some products have an additional benefit and societal impact because they reduce energy needs and / or decrease the use of industrial pollutants. As noted, Colorifix and Living Ink target the dye and ink industries. From an environmental perspective, the speaker from Colorifix pointed out that the chemical dye industry is the second largest polluter, and third largest water consumer. Thus, new ways to make dyes can provide a significant benefit to society. The dye industry also employs one percent of the population meaning it is big business and hence a good business opportunity. According to bioMason, the cement industry accounts for approximately 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, so bio-cement can reduce the production of greenhouse gas. Modern Meadow’s tissue-engineered leather isn't just about vegan friendly textiles; leather produced by biosynthetic manufacturing process eliminates tanning, which is chemically intensive, i.e. pollutes, and consumes significant water and energy. 

Speaking of energy, we get a lot of it from oil. Oil - petroleum - also goes into a very large number of materials. And products made from these materials produce non-biodegradable waste that sits in our landfills, contaminates our oceans, and gets into our food and water. Synthetic biologists are working on solutions in this area too. Part of the pollution problem in the dye industry is due to the fact that dyes are made from petroleum. Other companies like AMSilk are pioneering the use of silk proteins in cosmetics, medical devices, and fiber. In cosmetics, silk fibers can replace the micro-particles that are contaminating our water systems including tap water. It’s hard to not drink tap water.

Another energy and resource intensive activity is farming. Plants need nitrogen and phosphate to grow. While the air and ground have an abundance of nitrogen and phosphate, respectively, they are not in the right forms for plants to use. The production of nitrogen fertilizer from N2 gas (air) is energy intensive and its use is polluting because the application of fertilizers results in significant runoff into the ground water. The story is similar for phosphate, and might be even worse when phosphate mining is considered.  Microbes can solve these problems. For some plants like beans and peas, symbiotic bacteria (the Rhizobia), live on their roots and fix nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship. This is why soy and other beans are used as rotation crops. What if all crops had a relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria? Pivot Bio is using metagenomics to characterize soil microbes and then using the resulting data to find genes for nitrogen fixation in non-rhizobial microbes. With this information, they can engineer new kind of microbes to fix and release nitrogen to plants in optimal and less polluting ways. In a similar approach, Pivot Bio is also engineering microbes to unlock the inorganic phosphate that is abundant in soil. 

It’s an exciting time in biotechnology. As the costs of DNA sequencing and synthesis continue to decrease, synthetic biology-based applications will increase. New products and new ways of making existing products, open new opportunities for those interested in field. A common phrase at the conference was synthetic biology is making biotechnology accessible. The early stages of biotechnology research and development were capital intensive, hence human health applications were common as these were the best ways for investors to see returns on their investments. As the tools of biotechnology become more standardized it is possible to think about serving additional markets because smaller investments can be turned into sucessful businesses more quickly. The limits are fast becoming those of imagination.