Could Synthetic Biology be the Key to a Circular and Regenerative Future?
By Eva Wallack
Ten years ago, “synthetic biology” elicited a tepid and often hesitant reaction from the public. A term coined biotechnophobia, a fear of human made biotechnologies, swept the blogosphere and academic literature. Yet, synthetic polymers have been around since the early 1900s, beginning with the first synthetic plastic - Bakelite. Fast forward to 2022 and the excitement is palpable. 2021 concluded the highest total investment in synthetic biology startups ever with ~$18 billion, nearly as much as the total investment amount since 2009. The global synthetic biology (synbio) market is expected to grow from $14 billion in 2022 to $19.8 billion by 2025. With applications transcending its birthplace in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, synbio is now catching the attention of the circular economy. The utilization of synthetically engineered fibers, food, and other everyday materials can no longer be considered a matter of if, but simply a matter of when.
We are in dire need of a new materials paradigm. With population projections set to grow from 7.6 billion to 8.6 billion by 2030, finding new ways to optimize resource utilization is paramount. Synthetic biology is that future paradigm. The term broadly refers to the interdisciplinary process of manufacturing living systems - editing gene sequences and repurposing existing sequences for new uses. These techniques have immense potential within the circular economy - detecting toxic chemicals, breaking down pollutants, producing new biofuels, growing alternative proteins, transforming dyeing technology, and developing innovative biopolymers & textiles among others. Synbio solutions promote two primary and critical components required to transition toward a circular economy: decreasing reliance on dwindling raw materials and increasing and promoting biodiversity.
Currently, our standard processes for manufacturing materials and growing food are highly resource intensive - 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions are related to material handling and use. For example, leather has the largest resource footprint of any material used in fashion, using roughly 83 billion gallons of water per year alone. Every kg of processed cotton fiber requires 125 liters of water and 3 kg of chemicals for traditional dyeing and finishing. Food accounts for 48% - 70% of household impacts on land and water resources. Livestock is the global driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss, with agriculture generating 19 - 29% of total GHG emissions. The list goes on.
Enter synthetic biology - designing and constructing new and artificial biological entities. Engineered microbes, enzymes, genetic circuits, and cells can functionally replace traditionally resource intensive processes across complex supply chains with extremely cost-efficient solutions. For example, reducing meat production from a multi-step process that includes animal husbandry, slaughter, cold storage, and distribution to the simplicity of lab grown meat can cut down on logistics and overhead, reduce resource consumption, and entirely eliminate the cost of raising animals. Half a gram of cattle muscle can create 4.4 billion pounds of beef, more than enough to feed the entire country of Mexico for a year. Synbio startups strive to eliminate pollution, cut carbon emissions, minimize resource reliance and increase profitability.
Advances in DNA sequencing, DNA synthesis and CRISPR-Cas9 over the last 15-20 years have increased accessibility to synbio, stimulating the startup ecosystem and enabling cost effective scale and development. DNA sequencing has dropped in cost by 1,000,000X since 2001. Cost reduction in bioreactor technology has also enabled widespread adoption of fermentation solutions - a key growth technique propelling synbio startups forward. Perfectly positioned to disrupt traditional industries and production methods, synbio is poised to tackle climate change, arrest biodiversity loss, and drive circularity forward.
DNA sequencing refers to the process of determining the exact sequence of nucleotides in a given strand of DNA. Nucleotides (Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine, and Guanine) encode biological information that all cells use to perform all functions. Synthetic biologists identify gene sequences that give fibers and food certain qualities or functional characteristics to isolate or replicate. Artificial DNA synthesis refers to the process of constructing an artificial strand of DNA in a lab through various assembly methods. Once gene sequences have been identified or synthesized, they are often injected into yeast or bacteria to ferment, producing more microbes with more of the desired protein. CRISPR-Cas9, first used in 2013, is a gene editing tool with the ability to precisely locate, cut, and replace DNA sequences at specific locations.
As a climate tech investment firm, Regeneration.VC has screened hundreds of synbio companies, two of which provided the most promising solutions to transition us towards a circular economy: VitroLabs and Colorifix. Each of these companies addresses a different part of the textile industry. VitroLabs addresses animal based inputs into textile products, while Colorifix addresses traditionally harmful dyeing processes that pollute the environment. Together, these two companies have the disruptive potential to turn the traditional fashion industry on its head.
VitroLabs creates a cell-based authentic leather product. Using a few skin cells from a cow combined with synthetic biology, VitroLabs can grow leather using cell based cultures that replicate indefinitely. With proprietary tissue engineering techniques, this process results in an authentic leather hide without any of the resources required for raising livestock, reducing biodiversity loss, resource footprint, and emissions generation of traditional leather production.
“At a time when environmental stewardship is more important than ever, biotech companies have the opportunity to lead the way in changing how we produce materials and build supply chains, working hand in hand with existing artisans and craftspeople who are the cornerstone of the $400B leather goods industry…by launching the first production of cultivated leather, we’ll hit a major milestone in fulfilling our mission to lead the shift towards a more sustainable future.” - Ingvar Helgason, CEO of VitroLabs
Whether textile sources are derived from animal, plant, or petroleum, post-production methods such as dyeing are extremely toxic. Colorifix uses synthetic biology to transform dyeing processes for a variety of textile substrates. Colorifix identifies the gene sequences of organisms responsible for creating certain pigments naturally. Once identified, those sequences can be used to modify microorganisms to produce those pigments. They then use these newly engineered microorganisms and bacterial fermentation to grow and deposit the natural pigments onto fabric. Colorifix’s process reduces resources needed, and emissions and waste streams associated with conventional dyeing processes while eliminating all toxicity from final end products.
“At Colorifix, we borrow from nature, not take from it. We use synthetic biology to copy how nature makes colours, by looking at DNA, which we use in the dyeing process. We are trying to significantly improve how we put colour into our daily lives. We want to give the industry access to this new technology in a way that doesn’t come at a huge cost and can produce great environmental savings.” - Orr Yarkoni, CEO and Co-Founder of Colorifix
VitroLabs and Colorifix are just two of many synbio moving us closer to circularity. Outside of the textile industry, other companies utilizing synbio include Perfect Day manufacturing a nutritionally identical milk protein alternative, Apeel Sciences developing plant based coatings extending produce shelf life, Twist Bioscience manufacturing synthetic DNA on silicon chips, Bolt Threads creating mycelium based leather alternatives and LanzaTech converting biogas from agricultural and municipal waste into biofuels and other sustainable materials. The technical applications are endless.
“Nature continues to hold the solutions to make better, cheaper and more sustainable materials by allowing us to mimic the vast and diverse array of naturally occurring processes. Biosynthesis provides the key to unlock the power of nature while enabling us to protect it. It does not mean that we have to compromise on the quality of the products that can be produced. Rather, it ensures that we are optimizing production by removing the costly need to extract raw materials. Biosynthesis is a perfect example of ‘Sustainable Sustainment’, a regenerative solution that can be both good for our planet and positive for a business.” - Dr. Marta Pazos, PhD, Regeneration.VC Advisor
Imagine a new generation of biodegradable plastics, personal care products that don't rely on inputs sourced from endangered species, nontoxic cement alternatives, crops engineered to sequester carbon, planes fueled by algae, ecosystems preserved through engineered disease resistance, heavy metal pollution detecting bacteria, and food grown without deforested land. Reducing reliance on natural resources is pertinent to tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. Enthusiasm for synthetic biology and its potential to meaningfully drive circular solutions is resounding. The time is now.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this note possible. Special thanks to Regeneration.VC Advisor Dr. Marta Pazos, Ph D.