What is 'Synthetic Biology'

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biomatter DNA to form something new in order to serve a specific purpose. Synthetically engineered organisms tend to be designed to overcome a flaw of the natural organism. The benefits of these synthetic organisms have positive implications for supply and demand of the product and/or public health.

BREAKING DOWN 'Synthetic Biology'

Synthetic biology creates organisms that defy their natural weaknesses. For example, apples can be engineered not to turn brown when bruised. Fish can be designed to breed twice as quickly as usual in order to speed population growth. Both of these are examples of products that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for consumption. Other examples of synthetic biology include organisms that resist specific diseases to stop their spread or provide fodder for vaccines.

As synthetic biology is still a relatively new practice, regulations and protocol surrounding its implementation are still in flux. Many people are opposed to these biological advances, arguing that it's not natural. Controversy particularly surrounds the use of synthetic biology in the food and healthcare industries.

Who are the Major Players?

Ginkgo Bioworks leads the field in the fragrance and flavor industries. The company harvests a synthetically engineered strain of yeast in order to produce the extracts that alternatively take much longer to produce and are more expensive. Ginkgo's synthetic organisms are provided to its customers, who then use them to flavor their products, and Ginkgo retains the DNA sequencing information.

Other companies at the forefront of synthetic biology include Synthetic Genomics, Twist BioSciences, and Gen9.

Why Engage in Synthetic Biology?

The most prominent reason for engaging in synthetic biology is to improve health. As new diseases arise, scientists engineer organisms to resist the diseases, creating vaccines to stop their spread and hopefully eradicate them. For example, the company XON is currently engineering a synthetic organism to fight the Zika virus.

Synthetic biology also provides many economic benefits for both the producer and the consumer. It alleviates supply and demand problems when organisms are engineered to reproduce more rapidly. For example, breeding fish twice as quickly produces twice as many fish to sell, which directly translates to higher profits for the company. The consumer often enjoys a lower cost due to the efficiency and the high volume on the producer's end.

Synthetic biology also has the potential to offer higher quality products, such as the aforementioned apples that resist browning, which are more appealing to the consumer.

Synthetic biology can also alleviate costs in various markets, as the synthetic organisms are often more efficiently produced than their natural counterparts. The low cost and high efficiency allow affected industries to produce much higher volumes of product than it could otherwise.

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