The next-generation biology revolution promises new products and industries
By Claudia Vickers, 16 July 2021
At the start of my career, I didn’t set out to work in the field of synthetic biology. It didn’t exist. But the pace of change with technology has opened many doors.
Synthetic biology is one of the most exciting fields today. It’s about recoding DNA to design useful things in biological systems, and it can be applied in test tubes or in living cells. It’s actually a blend of different disciplines, so you’re always learning something new.
In textile manufacturing, we can use spider silk brewed up in yeast, similar to making beer, to produce fibres – at large scale – and weave them into incredible fabrics with high tensile strength, elasticity, durability and softness. These fabrics are produced with less environmental impact than traditional textile manufacturing and are biodegradable – an incredible advance given that textile production is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year. That’s more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping.
In food, we can make animal-free meat, milk, and egg replacements, significantly decreasing the carbon footprint for food production and addressing ethical concerns around animal production. In medicine: yeast can now make the anti-malarial treatment artemisinin, opiates for pain management, and a variety of other drugs. These approaches deliver a wide range of sustainability, industrial, social and economic benefits.
Closer to home, in my lab I work on a range of projects, such as producing new agricultural chemicals to increase crop yields and tackle crop pests, as well as pharmaceuticals and food ingredients. I love my research, but I’m also driven to enable other researchers to take their work through to impact, which I do through my role as director of the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform at Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. This is an extremely rewarding job. It provides me with the opportunity to massively increase my impact by creating enabling environments, improving systems, and designing pathways to impact through both research and commercialisation with groups of passionate people from a range of organisations and backgrounds.
I’ve always been excited about what I can create and the opportunity to make a big difference in the real world. My PhD in plant molecular biology introduced me to plant biology, physiology, cereal crop engineering and how to better manipulate those systems to get better agricultural outcomes. Later, working in the UK at Essex University, a door opened for me to work with isoprenoids, a particular group of molecules in plants. My job was to find out why plants created a particular molecule called isoprene. Plants produce teragram amounts of this every year; that’s 10 with 12 zeros after it! The Empire State Building weighs about a teragram; it’s 102 storeys and it’s made of steel, stone and concrete. Imagine the equivalent weight of gas!
Answering this question was controversial at the time, because people had different – and very firm – opinions about it. I showed clearly that it helps plants deal with oxidative stress. This is important because plants are subject to oxidative stress all the time – they can’t get up and move away if they’re too cold, hot or dry. It’s also highly relevant to how plants will respond under climate change.
I soon realised that isoprenoids have lots of industrial applications, like pharmaceutical, agricultural industrial chemicals, renewable plastics, rubbers and resins; even biofuels.
Realising the potential from this field has only driven me more to unlock its potential for Australia and Australians.
Back in Australia, I took a role at the University of Queensland and discovered synthetic biology. I realised that I needed to build a research community in Australia in this exciting new field. So I worked with some like-minded folks to establish a professional society, Synthetic Biology Australasia.
At the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform we also know that it’s crucial that stakeholders from all walks of life can understand and appreciate the potential benefits from this field. Social science is therefore a critical component of our research program. Through the work of our scientists, we know that many people are curious, hopeful and excited about how the emerging field of synthetic biology could address some of Australia’s environmental, health and agricultural problems. We don’t have all the answers, and there are risks where technology advancement is unregulated.
All CSIRO work is subject to ethical conduct requirements, legislation and regulations from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. Having committed, impact-focused and ethical researchers is fundamental to synthetic biology realising its full potential for the benefit of all.
Synthetic biology can revolutionise industries – and we need it do that, fast, for a sustainable future. There are also lots of potential economic opportunities and societal benefits. We’re looking at a global synthetic biology market of about US$20 billion by 2024 (up from $5.3 billion in 2019).
Some reports suggest that synthetic biology can create US$2–4 trillion worth of economic benefits by 2040. That’s not just about dollars in the back pockets of companies, that’s also dollars related to improved health, reduced environmental damage and more efficient products.
In Australia, we could be creating new products in agriculture, human health, consumer goods and materials. We could also be applying synthetic biology to humane control of invasive pests — like the mouse plague we’re seeing in NSW — and helping agriculture and natural ecosystems deal with the challenges of climate change.
We are especially well-positioned, because we have a lot of the plant feedstocks we can feed to microbes in these bioprocesses to turn into value-added products. The one which really jumps out at me is sugar. Australian farmers produce about 5 million tonnes of sugar a year; that could be turned into sustainable bio-based products that are worth 10 or even 1,000 times as much as raw sugar.
Australia also has lots of space to build infrastructure and a big Asian market at our doorstep. With so many smart, enthusiastic people both in research, government, business and the community who want to make a positive difference, this is an exciting time to be in synthetic biology.
Originally published in Cosmos Weekly and republished here with approval.