“The decade since the Human Genome Project ended has witnessed a remarkable sequencing technology explosion… at unprecedented speed and resolution.”
~ Elaine Mardis, A Decade’s Perspective on DNA Sequencing Technology (2010)
Since the humble beginnings of the Early Stone Age (~2,000,000 years ago), Humans have been natural tinkerers . From the earliest known stone age tool of the “Hammerstone” in Majuangou China (1), to present day chemical synthesis, we love solving problems by creating meaningful tools to help us along the way.
While the 20th century has brought us the knowledge to command the chemical nature of compounds, the 21st century is beginning to show great promise for engineering systems of life and beyond.
In his 2010 TED Talk “Watch Me Unveil Synthetic Life”, Dr. Craig Venter demonstrated the his team’s pioneering effort to create the very first synthetic organism ever, inspiring the radical new field of Synthetic Biology.
Synthetic biology (aka. Synbio) is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. (2).
Think of a living cell like a machine.
It has thousands of cogs with unique jobs that when combined together produce a network of complex interactions, products and outputs.
What if, understanding some of these components, you could take a few cogs out and swap them around resulting in the machine producing a very novel product?
Perhaps, a very desirable product like a drug processor or fuel?
The idea of turning cells into factories that produce valuable output products based on cheap inputs like sugar is not an uncommon analogy. Mainly because it is one of the holy grails for Synthetic Biology and Metabolic Engineering entrepreneurs.
A Case For Synthetic Biology: Taxol
But you maybe thinking, why bother cells and biology, can’t we just synthesize these products with traditional chemistry? It some cases, we can! But very inefficiently.
For example, take Taxol, a popular and effective treatment for ovarian, breast, lung and other cancers (3). While it can be isolated from the Taxus plant, the plant itself grows extremely slowly with taxol content of 0.01% of dry weight in bark (4).
However, in Engels et al 2008, researchers demonstrated the ability to isolate a gene from the Taxus plant and integrate it into the genome of a simple yeast cell to produce the Taxol drug precursor. The thought being that,
“If natural has already solved the problem with a gene coding for an enzyme that produces Taxol, why not make use of it?”
This reusability mentality is common within engineering disciplines, and will likely continue to flourish as more examples of products such as Taxol are produced through rationally engineering biological systems.
Synthetic Biology for Hangovers?
As accessibility of tools and knowledge becomes available, PhDs and Bio geeks around the world are hard at work hacking together new organisms and pathways to solve some challenging problems.
In this cast we talk to CEO and Co-Founder, Zack Abbott (PhD) of ZBiotics, fresh out of Y-Combinator (YC)’s incubator program, about his team’s goal of bioengineering probiotics to solve everyday problems, starting with the day after drinking.
Specifically, we chat about:
The knowledge gap to overcome when it comes to discussing about using microbes to solve our problems.
Fascinating studies about the microbiome and the influences on our health and opportunities for innovation in the nutraceuticals.
Being a Biotech Company in Silicon Valley.
More on ZBiotics
Food For Thought 🍍
The Fortune Cookie Principle
People don’t buy a fortune cookie because it tastes good, they buy it because of the delight it provides at the end of the meal.
By that same token, your job is to write a good narrative, sell the story and ensure you have a quality cookie to deliver along side it.
~ notes from William Mougayar’s book The Business Blockchain
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Music Credits to: Dlay — Far Away Place (Intro), Dlay — Inside Out, Ant The Symbol — With The Constellations (CC)
Design inspiration: BlockChannel Media (CC)