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After the Biofuel Fail, Does Synthetic Biology Have a Future?

Synthetic biology will be the future of manufacturing, engineering and medicine. But for now, there's nothing wrong with focusing on start-ups that will generate revenue while moving up the complexity curve faster and more predictably than anyone else.
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Last month, Newsweek tweeted: "Synbio was going to save the world. Now it's being used to make vanilla flavoring." Synthetic biology (synbio), for the uninitiated, uses organisms and designs from nature to engineer new tools. The Newsweek article details the synthetic biology industry's failure to produce biofuels from pond scum on a large scale, and how it has now pivoted to produce flavors and fragrances.

Synthetic biology won't stop an asteroid from hitting Earth, but making vanilla flavoring is a first step toward a new industrial era powered by biology.

Almost everything we use daily -- from food to clothing to toys -- relies on decades- to centuries-old ingredients and production processes. These manufacturing systems have enabled impressive economic growth, raising global standards of living. But as planetary resources such as water and fossil fuels get more scarce and problematic for the planet, biology is offering a new way to engineer solutions.

Microorganisms can make many of the same ingredients as the traditional industrialization process but with less energy and waste and without relying on petroleum derivatives. Just as yeast can be fermented to make beer, microbes can be used to make a variety of products with synthetic biology.

Biologists are the engineers of the future. Ultimately, climate change, infectious diseases and famine could meet their match with applied and synthetic biology. But the truth is we have to start somewhere, such as vanilla flavoring.

The infrastructure and tools that these biologists are creating now to make industrial-scale vanilla or rose-scented perfumes are rapidly accelerating the pace of development in synthetic biology -- making the programming of biology more predictable. While the first products readily available on the market are basic, such as flavors and textiles, they're the foundation for more ambitious products, such as green fertilizers, probiotics that fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, novel drugs, and even new ways to capture carbon from the air.

And in many cases, these efforts are already under way. Consider the ongoing efforts to reinvent transplantation for humans using pig organs. By editing the biological code of pigs to ensure their tissues are not rejected by people, scientists hope to engineer a new generation of organ transplants, saving the 20 people that die every day waiting for organs. Synthetic biology provides a new solution, and one that is potentially within reach in less than a decade.

Another big problem that synthetic biology is stepping up to address is antibiotic resistance, which is estimated to cause 700,000 deaths a year. Instead of developing new antibiotics, synthetic biologists are working on probiotics, for example, that will remove antibiotic resistant genes from the body.

For these projects to come to fruition on the technical side, synthetic biology -- which relies on the reading, writing and editing of DNA-based code -- needs the reliability we have now with computer software. Software engineers have made computer code reliable for everything from airplane autopilot systems to processing a credit card transaction.

These projects also require time and money. The synthetic biology industry is expected to reach $5.6 billion by 2018 from $1.9 billion in 2013, though measuring that is like measuring the market for personal computers before the Apple II. Meanwhile, some groups are already doubling down on applied biology.

DARPA -- the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense -- recently opened a biotechnology office (budget: $300 million a year) to support some of the best, boldest science using applied biology. At a recent meeting in San Francisco, called "Biology is Technology," they laid out ambitious plans for everything from making novel materials to new platforms to fight infectious disease.

Still, funding remains a formidable barrier to advancing the field of synthetic biology. The high-profile failure of the industry to make biofuel alternatives has dampened investor enthusiasm at a critical time. To avoid a biotechnology bust, scientists need more DARPAs -- and innovative funding models through private endowments, VCs and crowdfunding -- to support their ideas and create a strong funding ecosystem.

Profit and progress can and must align for the field to flourish, which is where vanilla comes in.

Synthetic biology will be the future of manufacturing, engineering and medicine. But for now, there's nothing wrong with focusing on start-ups that will generate revenue while moving up the complexity curve faster and more predictably than anyone else. Along the way, they'll make major contributions to how we do science.

Bryan Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor and founder of OS Fund and Braintree (PayPal/eBay). Johnson serves on the boards of the J. Craig Venter Institute, Human Longevity, Inc., and Planetary Resources. He loves outdoor adventure (mountains, volcanoes, arctic dog sledding), is a pilot and author of a children's book.