Oct 21, 2020 - Science

Biology is having its industrial revolution

Illustration of a factory smokestack emitting a dna strand cloud

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Bioscience research is undergoing a wave of automation and digitization, turning a manual, laborious practice into a true industry.

Why it matters: Biotechnology promises to revolutionize everything from medicine to energy, but for that to happen, the field needs to move out of the traditional lab and into something resembling a foundry. The growth of robotics and cloud-based remote research can help make that happen.

What's happening: In a report published last week, the design and engineering firm Arup made the case that the future of scientific labs will increasingly be automated and digitized, allowing researchers to carry out experiments remotely and scale up their work faster.

  • "Digitization is changing all of our lives, and it's also changing how we do science," said Jennifer DiMambro, Arup's science and business leader for the Americas, in an online event for the report. "We're moving away from designing labs for people to designing them for the tools we use."

How it works: That means labs where experiments can be automated — think robot arms moving vials en masse, rather than overworked graduate students pipetting by hand.

  • Smart facilities can track everything done in a lab, automating data collection that in the past might have been kept on pad and paper and allowing researchers to maximize workflow.
  • Virtual remote labs can be accessed via the cloud, providing on-demand services for sequencing DNA, carrying out reactions and other experiments that can be quickly spun up according to a researcher's needs.
  • "We now have customers who can leverage robots to do a thousand experiments at once that in the past would have been done manually," says Saji Wickramasekara, the CEO of the cloud-based informatics platform Benchling. "You can get far more scale."

Of note: Benchling, which helps life science researchers remotely track and share data, has seen a 35% increase in platform use from customers working on COVID-19.

  • "COVID-19 has really been a forcing function to put the gas pedal down on change and modernize this field," says Wickramasekara.

Zoom in: Speed and industrialization in the lab are particularly vital for developing a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

  • Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based synthetic biology startup that writes more DNA than any other firm in the world, has lent its platform infrastructure to Moderna to optimize the manufacturing of key ingredients for that company's mRNA vaccine.
  • Ginkgo invested $400 million over the past five years to build a 100,000-square-foot automated bioengineering facility that more closely resembles a biological factory than a traditional lab.

Context: Ginkgo Bioworks, which is now valued at more than $4 billion, represents the cutting edge of biotech industrialization.

  • Rather than producing final products itself, Ginkgo designs and engineers custom-made microbes for customers ranging from fragrances to food flavors to pharmaceuticals.
  • "Our role is helping to improve the manufacturing process," says Jason Kelly, Ginkgo's CEO. "That means faster vaccine development, faster drug development, faster everything."
  • He sees Ginkgo as the Amazon Web Services of the biotechnology field, providing the backstage infrastructure for R&D and engineering. Just as tech startups can quickly outsource their cloud computing needs to a provider like AWS — which lets them grow faster since they don't need to build out their own server farms — Kelly says Ginkgo "wants other people to use us to build their biological apps."
  • The result is what Kelly calls a "general-purpose data center," but for biology. "That is how lab work is going to happen in the future."

What's next: On Tuesday, the Department of Defense announced it would award $87.5 million — which will be matched by more than $180 million in non-federal funding — to establish a manufacturing innovation institute called BioMADE at the University of Minnesota.

  • BioMADE aims to "bridge the gap between lab-scale research and at-scale manufacturing," Douglas Friedman, the CEO of BioMADE, said in a statement.

The bottom line: If the 21st century really is going to be the "age of biology," as some experts have predicted, the field needs to undergo its own version of the Industrial Revolution.

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