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Real Promise for Synthetic Biology

Two new companies are giving birth to the industry of synthetic biology. Although originally coined in 1980, the term “synthetic biology” has, in the past few years, been taken to cover the application of engineering and computer science to genomic circuits to construct small biological devices. The related field of “synthetic genomics,” if there is a distinction to be made, is more about customizing microbial vehicles “for groundbreaking scientific advances, including the development of alternative energy sources, and the production of new vaccines and pharmaceuticals,” according to J. Craig Venter.

The first of the new companies, Codon Devices, was established last year. Founded by a quartet of molecular biologists from MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, it has raised $13 million in venture capital. It will initially focus on developing customized genetic toolkits for biosensors and engineered cells for chemical and protein manufacture.

Meanwhile, Venter has co-founded Synthetic Genomics, backed with $30 million in private financing, about half from Mexican agro-technology billionaire, Alfonso Romo Garza. “We’re moving from reading the genetic code to writing it,” Venter told the Wall Street Journal, which broke the news of Venter’s new company. Having cracked the genome, evidently it’s time to start stitching it up again.

Synthetic Genomics will build on Venter’s fascination with the “minimal genome” concept. Although the term was first coined 10 years ago, Venter and colleagues published a landmark paper in Science in 1999, demonstrating that a mere 300 genes or so might be necessary and sufficient to encode life. Progress was suspended while Venter tackled the human genome, but last year, his group took another important step with the “resynthesis” of a viral genome – an important proof-of-principle for synthetic genomics.

The Synthetic Genomics website says it all: “Imagine a future where clean, environmentally friendly microorganisms produce the bulk of industrial materials that are today made from petrochemicals… where specifically tailored organisms harness the sun to create clean energy… when researchers can use a modular, software-like product to design new microbial genomes which [sic] are manufactured on an industrial-like scale…”

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