An alliance of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley earlier this month formed the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute (SBI) to advance efforts to engineer cells and biological systems. Agilent Technologies is providing infrastructure, expertise, and funding for the new institute. The move signals growing research and commercial interest in the nascent field of synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology came into public prominence last year with the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI), a genomic-research organization founded and headed by J. Craig Venter, who helped map the human genome, that his group had successfully constructed the first self-replicating synthetic cell, which represented a significant step in the still-emerging filed of synthetic biology. At the time of their announcement in May 2010, the JVCI researchers said their work represented the construction of the largest synthetic molecule of a defined structure—almost double the size of a previously reported synthetically produced DNA molecule. With that proof of principle, JVCI is working on creating an organism that contains the minimal genome required to sustain itself and its replication to be used as a platform for analyzing the function of every essential gene in a cell. The researchers envision that the knowledge gained by constructing the first self-replicating synthetic cell, coupled with decreasing costs for DNA synthesis, will give rise to wider use of the technology in the development of a range of therapeutic products, such as pharmaceuticals and vaccines, and industrial products, including biofuels.
SBI is looking to take synthetic biology to the next level. SBI’s ultimate aim is to “create an industrial revolution in biological engineering,” said Matthew Tirrell, chair of Berkeley’s Department of Bioengineering and SBI’s founding director, in a SBI press release. “SBI seeks to bridge the gap between the small-scale, biological engineering of the present and industrial-level production by developing design tools and other infrastructure to produce synthetic biological systems reliably on a large scale.”
Agilent is SBI’s first industry member and will help initiate SBI research through a multiyear, multimillion dollar commitment, including early access to the company’s research scientists and engineers. SBI will be a link to research efforts focused on synthetic biology at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The leadership of SBI includes its director Adam Arkin, professor of bioengineering and director of the Physical Biosciences Division at LBNL, and associate director Douglas Clark, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and executive associate dean of the College of Chemistry. The institute builds on existing Berkeley research synergies with LBNL, the College of Letters & Science’s Division of Biological Sciences, the College of Natural Resources, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, and the Energy Biosciences Institute. SBI is interdisciplinary, with 33 faculty and scientists from eight academic departments at Berkeley and four divisions at LBNL, spanning engineering, chemical sciences, and biology.
“Synthetic biology potentially can have as profound an impact in the 21st century as semiconductor technology had in the 20th,” said William P. Sullivan, Agilent’s CEO and president, in the SBI release. “To get there, we need to engineer biological solutions that are scalable, reliable, and safe. This is precisely what the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Institute is addressing, and why Agilent is enthusiastic about providing infrastructure, expertise, and funding for this new institute.”
The promise of synthetic biology is not only inducing Agilent but other companies to take notice as well, both large firms and startups. For example, the JVCI researchers used DNA units made by Blue Heron Biotechnology, a biotechnology company specializing in synthesizing DNA. Synthetic Genomics, a company cofounded by Venter, provided nearly $30 million in funding for the JVCI research. SGI has a $600-million agreement with ExxonMobil to develop biofuels from algae. SGI and ExxonMobil formed a long-term research and development alliance in 2009 focused on finding and optimizing (through synthetic genome techniques and other more traditional metabolic engineering techniques) algae to produce biological crude-oil replacements.
But as noted by SBI, the adaption of synthetic biologic into cost-effective and large-scale production systems is the key to the technology’s future. It is not yet clear, however, given the time and cost needed to design new organisms, that using synthetic biology will indeed be a better approach than conventional genetic-engineering techniques, and whether the type and range of industrial or pharmaceutical products that can be manufactured from synthetic biology will truly be an advancement over existing products using conventional production methods. Despite this uncertainty, it is likely that more companies will become engaged in research efforts in synthetic biology at some level given the possibilities of this emerging field.