Nov 24, 2021 - Science

How to program biology like a computer

Illustration of a scientist holding a petri dish full of binary code
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The growing synthetic biology industry is developing tools to allow companies to program living cells the way we program computers.

Why it matters: Turning cellular engineering from an art to an industry could open the door to more sustainable energy, food and materials, but it carries the risk of making it much easier to create the biological equivalent of malware.

What's happening: Earlier this month, the leading synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks launched a Cell Development Kit (CDK) service for companies that want easy access to its biological engineering services.

  • Like much in the synthetic biology world, the name is directly taken from the computer world — tech companies have long offered software development kits that make it easier for people to build and test computer programs.

How it works: Biological engineering has long been slow and laborious — think rows of postgraduate students pipetting liquids by hand in a lab. But Ginkgo says its CDKs will streamline the process.

  • A customer like Motif FoodWorks — a Boston-based startup that makes ingredients for plant-based meat and dairy — can use a CDK to have Gingko rapidly engineer the necessary microbes in its automated biological foundry.
  • "They can focus on product development rather than hiring a bunch of biologists to build DNA by hand," which helps them get to market faster, says Patrick Boyle, the head of codebase at Ginkgo.

By the numbers: Synthetic biology companies raised $9 billion from VCs and IPOs through the first half of the year, more than the amount raised through all of 2020.

  • "Biology and engineering are coming together in profound ways,” Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University, told the New York Times. “The potential is for civilization-scale flourishing, a world of abundance not scarcity, supporting a growing global population without destroying the planet."

The catch: Earlier attempts to use synthetic biology to develop sustainable biofuels largely failed, and Ginkgo has yet to bring in significant revenue.

  • Should the company's approach become successful, it will come with biosecurity risks. Endy says we should assume that in the near future, "anyone, anywhere can make any virus from scratch."
  • Yes, but: Boyle says Ginkgo is building biosecurity into its platform, in part by using automated tools that can scan synthesized DNA orders for potentially dangerous strains.
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