If you took a look at all the cells of living creatures, you would see that there is a standard code called DNA. While we are more familiar with regulation related to computers, DNA, the blueprint of all life, is a different kind of code. While computer code uses 1’s and 0’s to instruct the software to do a task, biological code uses A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s to teach cells to perform specific functions.
Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company, applies to synthetic biology the same principles that Apple AAPL+1.5% or Microsoft MSFT-0.3% pioneered. These have transformed our lives.
Synthetic biology is the branch of biology that modifies and reprograms living organisms’ DNA to produce a new product. As Dr. Jason Kelly, co-founder, and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, explains this week on A Second Opinion podcast, we can find synthetic biology quietly hidden all around us from the food industry to the fashion world. Kelly describes how Burger King’s meatless Impossible Burger, which “bleeds” like meat, was made possible by synthetic biology. This is an animal protein that doesn’t exist in the animal. By utilizing the power of the new field of science, code for animal hemoglobin was encoded into yeast to create a veggie hamburger that has the same taste, smell, and consistency as a traditional beef burger.
More recently, Ginkgo customer Genomatica partnered with Lululemon to create bio-synthesized plant-based nylon fabric that eliminates the microplastics that appear in other nylon and microfiber fabrics, creating a more environmentally-friendly yoga pant.
Ginkgo is moving biology to the engineering sector. It has been called “The Organism Company” and has the mission to program cells just like computers. Kelly made comparisons with Apple by explaining the Ginkgo vision. Ginkgo’s goal is to be the horizontal platform for the creation of synthetic biology products. It works in the same way as the App Store on Apple smartphones. Ginkgo does NOT bring products to the market. Instead, they work with companies to develop the desired DNA code and then charge royalties when that code is made. This innovative approach allows startups and companies to avoid the high cost of setting up a lab. It also gives them the freedom to outsource difficult lab work and grants to Ginkgo.
The current pandemic was a catalyst for highlighting the importance of synthetic biology, DNA manipulation, and biotechnology. Synthetic biology provides more efficient ways of producing mRNA vaccines. A recent Ginkgo partnership creates an engineered cell that forms a key enzyme used in mRNA vaccine manufacturing that is 10-times more efficient and can lower costs and speed up production.
Ginkgo also had the chance to consider the future for biosecurity using the lenses of prevention and detection. Kelly shared with me that Kelly believes we are moving into the age of designing and programming biology. He also stated that he has evidence that the U.S.’s biosecurity capabilities are not up to par. Ginkgo would like to see “muscle up,” both for national security as well as public health. He states, “It’s the current topic, and the U.S. should use the next 18 months, where the pandemic carry on with to be an issue in the U.S. and important worldwide, for building that.”
Ginkgo plans to use these next 18 months to increase biosecurity measures using surveillance testing. Kelly says that you know what viruses could be flowing through your computer, but you don’t know what else is in the air. Kelly believes we need to do more routine Covid-19 testing, which will give decision-makers more information. He says, “When a governor must decide how the virus should be contained, they don’t have to close down an entire state.” They know the exact location of the virus and can shut down a community, a city, or a school. They do not have to make large-scale interventions that will ruin the lives of everyone, but they are able and willing to make targeted interventions.
It is easy to see how a biotech firm like Ginkgo had an immediate impact on the pandemic. This includes the biological monitoring methods they are currently using and the production of an enzyme that will allow for more efficient creation of mRNA vaccines. This company has a broader scope than most. Kelly estimates that Kelly’s platform is nearly twice as efficient each year, doubling the output and halving project costs. Ginkgo will add almost 30 new products this year to its portfolio. The goal is to produce 500 new products by 2025. It is valued at an impressive $15Billion and has been included on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 List for fast-growing companies.
Ginkgo’s synthetic biology platform, completely changing the physical goods market, has disrupted the information-based industry. Kelly answered my questions about the future needs by saying, “Engineered Cells… They don’t move information around. They move atoms everywhere.” They won’t disrupt the information-based industries; they will disturb the promising physical sectors. All industries are biotech, including food, pharma, electronics, and building materials.