It may be a phenomenon without a commonly accepted appellation, but synthetic biology—or syn-bio, as we call it—has become a disruptive force that is birthing the Bio Economy. Biology is usually defined as the study of living things and life itself, but syn-bio has turned the science into the manufacturing paradigm of the future. Microorganisms can, in theory, make many of the things that industrial processes currently manufacture, so syn-bio—the design and engineering of biological systems to create and improve processes and products—offers new ways of producing almost everything that human beings consume, from flavors and fabrics to foods and fuels.
Supply might no longer be constrained by the availability of raw materials. Companies can engineer and manufacture an infinite quantity of things, cell by cell, from scratch. Half a gram of cattle muscle could create as much as 4.4 billion pounds of beef—more than Mexico consumes in a year. Already, syn-bio has spawned an industry of science-based start-ups that are trying to alter conventional products and processes, transforming the material world as we know it.
Just as arranging zeroes and ones enabled all types of information to be communicated digitally, changing the genetic code—A, T, C, and G, which stand for adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine, the four nucleotides that form DNA—alters biological systems. New genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9, are helping the creation of novel DNA combinations, reducing the costs of editing DNA, and increasing the length of DNA strands that can be replicated without error. The viability of cell-free biology has improved, allowing companies to use metabolic cell processes that don’t need live cells and make testing faster by using biosensors. Like data and cloud computing, DNA and DNA editing are fueling the creation of a new production frontier.