BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit Kicks Off with Discussion of Synthetic Biology

BIO’s Brent Erickson, host of the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology, welcomed attendees to the opening plenary session with some observations about trends developing for the coming year. “I have been involved in industrial biotechnology for over a decade now and the changes I have witnessed over the past five years are sweeping, extraordinary and encouraging,” Erickson said. The trends that he identified in his remarks include:

  • Industrial biotech is spreading globally, and some of the most robust commercial developments are occurring in Asia;
  • Despite the global economic challenges all companies face, significant investments are still being made in industrial biotechnologies and processes;
  • As commercialization of large-scale biofuels facilities has slowed, due to financing constraints, commercialization of renewable chemical platforms has surged ahead;
  • Worldwide demand for oil will create even more demand for industrial biotech products over time, as oil prices continue to climb;
  • We are beginning to see new combinations of biocatalysis and conventional catalysis that will lead to exciting new renewable chemical processes;
  • Synthetic biology is a new engine for innovation and will increase the rate of innovation in the laboratory and reduce the time to commercialize new products.

Synthetic Biology BIOFAB Project

The Summit also hosted a session on a new BIOFAB project during the first full day. Dr. Drew Endy of Stanford led a discussion of the rapid pace of discovery in biotechnology and the challenge that presents for business models and safety and security networks, possibly requiring changes to current practices. Synthetic biology envisions reducing the the time and money spent on developing new biotechnology applications by allowing developers to work with DNA through a common programming language, analogous to computer programming, according to Endy. But that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.
The BIOFAB, according to Endy, is “a public-benefit facility producing the parts, tools & standards powering the future of biotechnology.” The first project of BIOFAB intends to question a central dogma of biology, that “one can construct, but not design, genomes.” Initial results are being generated, showing that a gene “expression operating unit” can be modeled with a high degree of predictability.

Odd Coalition Warns Capitol Hill About Synthetic Biology

Friends of the Earth joined forces today with the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, a well-known advocate of clean coal technology, to present a new report on Synthetic Biology to Congressional staffers. While the report specifically vilifies the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), representatives of BIO, including myself, were physically barred from attending the presentation.
The report contains a great deal of factual information about progress in synthetic biology and algae research, along with an accurate depiction of many groups’ and countries’ shared vision for a bioeconomy. But unfortunately, the information is garbled within an anti-corporate, anti-science and anti-biotech agenda, coupled with a failure to distinguish between technologies that are in use today and merely theoretical discussions at university labs.

More from the World Congress in Washington

Day two of BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotech brought more announcements from Genomatica and BIO itself, and day three promises exciting news from Ceres — The Energy Crop Company, according to sources.

Genomatica successfully scaled its first commercial product — 1,4 butanediol (BDO), a product with a $3 billion market used to make spandex, automotive plastics, running shoes, etc. — to pilot scale, running multiple successful batches of 3,000 liters. Genomatica uses computer aided analysis, modeling and simulation to design highly engineered microbes and has a vision that microbial productivity will increase the way chip memory did for computers.

Ceres has developed a new plant trait that improves salt-tolerance for energy grasses, including sorghum, miscanthus and switchgrass. Researchers tested the effects of very high salt concentrations and seawater from the Pacific Ocean, which contains mixtures of salts in high-concentration, on improved energy grass varieties growing in greenhouses. “Soils containing salt and other growth-limiting substances restrict crop production in many locations in the world. This genetic breakthrough provides new opportunities to overcome the effects of salt,” said Flavell. In food crops, Ceres has confirmed the trait in rice to date and is preparing additional testing in others.

During the lunch plenary session on Tuesday, Raoul Oberman of McKinsey & Co. released the results of a survey of BIO member companies on the future of the industry. Notably, the results included responses to the question, “By the year 2025, what will be the dominant fossil fuel alternative?” The majority (60 percent) of industry respondents said “Bio-substitutes for gasoline,” while 19 percent cited biodiesel and 16 percent said electric vehicles. McKinsey’s analysis showed that on a land use efficiency analysis, electric vehicles powered by biomass achieved 37 miles per acre while biofuels achieved 30.

More than half (55 percent) of respondents said there is currently insufficient capital to support growth of the industry. Three quarters of respondents (76 percent) supported “Governments create long-term regulatory frameworks and offer incentives” as a solution, and two thirds also supported “Science offers clear evidence of biofuel efficiency and carbon impact” as a driver of investment.

You can view the presentation of the findings by Oberman at McKinsey Industry Survey on Biofuel Outlook 2010.

BIO also presented the 2010 George Washington Carver Award to MIT Professor Greg Stephanopoulos, a pioneer in metabolic engineering and commercialization of industrial biotech processes.

Where is BIO: Dr. Rina Singh, Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry

BIO is involved in many different policy areas, but did you know that BIO’s staff is participating in the biotech community—giving talks at various conferences and meetings around the world.  Yesterday BIO’s very own Rina Singh Ph.D., Policy Director in the Industrial Biotechnology section at BIO, gave a presentation at a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Public Meeting: Biobased Intermediate Materials and Feedstocks.  The title of her talk: Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry.

According to Dr. Singh biorefining isn’t just for bio-ethanol.  Biorefining can produce polyester, nylon, and amino acids just to name a few.  In fact, one feedstock may produce many different products.

Plastics and ethanol were among the first chemical products to use biorefining methods for production.  Then as the technology advanced, methods using bioconversion entered the arena and advanced methodologies, like the succinic acid platform were developed to produce a variety of biochemicals.  The latest in this technology includes synthetic biology and systems biology which bring new production methods to biofuels, renewable chemicals, specialty chemicals, and other bioproducts.

View Dr. Singh’s presentation, Growing and Strengthening the Biobased Chemicals Industry.

Industrial Biotechnology: Biobased Products, Biofuels, and Synthetic Biology

Biobased products cover a wide range of materials.  One new such product is biobased insulation made from mushrooms named Greensulate.

The blog Greenline says that Greensulate,

“…is a bio-base alternative to rigid insulation made from paper, rice hulls, and mushroom fibers.   The product is still undergoing testing but the outlook for this new product is very good.  The insulation takes advantage of the mycellium, the roots of the mushroom plant that have incredible structural and insulation properties.    It requires no power to grow and is flame resistant.   The product also has potential to take the place of packing peanuts, they can be thrown in the garden or used in potted plants after they are no longer needed.”

You can find more information on biobased products and the future of industrial biotechnology on our web site

Cultural synthetic biology—that’s the latest topic for Christina Agapakis on her blog, Oscillator .

Agapakis writes,

“The future potential of synthetic biology is usually discussed in terms of applications in fields like medicine, food science, and the environment. Genetically engineered life forms are being designed to make medicines cheaply, to target tumor cells, to make more nutritious food, or to make agricultural plants that are easier to grow with less of an environmental impact, to clean up pollution or produce sustainable biofuels. What if synthetic biology systems were instead designed for use in culture or entertainment?”

She goes on to talk about acoustic sound gardens, bugs engineered to chew specially designed nuts in rhythm, whistling termites, lilly pad speakers, and popping seed pods.

You can find more information on synthetic biology on our web site

The sources for biomass to be converted to biomass are quite varied.  One example is the poplar tree.  According to the blog, Trees, Climate and People,

“Poplar trees (genus Populus, not to be confused with yellow-poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera) are among the fastest-growing trees in the world, and represent a diverse wide-spread genus of trees.  Poplars are grown in plantations for pulp and paper, and have great potential as feedstock for biofuels production.

Poplars have a lot of advantages as experimental plants, as they grow clonally from cuttings and are easy to hybridize.  The poplar genome has been sequenced, making poplars even more attractive as research subjects and for advanced breeding.

Gary Coleman and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Bowie State University have just received a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to take advantage of the poplar genome map to try to improve the prospects for poplars as a biofuel feedstock.”

You can find more information on biofuels and biomass sources on our Web site

This Week in Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology

This week in Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology there’s a new weekly round-up blog called This Week in Synthetic Biology . The writer, Abhishek Tiwari writes in his first post,

“This was an amazing week for synthetic biology community, part of the reason is the synthetic biology has completed 10 years since the very first synthetically engineered biological oscillator and toggle switch were introduced in journal Nature (sic) in year 2000. So on this eve I have decided that the title of this blog post “This week in synthetic biology” is going to be a regular section of Fisheye Perspective blog appearing on every weekend. Initially I will be posting a link round up for a week which will include excerpts from peer reviewed articles, news items and interesting tweets. But I have few interesting future plans including a podcast series TWISB (covering both Systems and Synthetic Biology) in close association of fellow synthetic and systems biology bloggers.”

It sounds like it’s worth checking out. Stay tune for Abhishek’s next post.

That’s it for this week in Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology. Join us next week as we explore the blogosphere.