How to program biology like a computer

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The growing synthetic biology industry is developing tools to allow companies to program living cells the same way we program computers.

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why it matters: Turning cellular engineering from art to industry could open the door to more sustainable energy, food and materials, but it runs the risk of making it much easier to create the biological equivalent of malware.

What are you saying: Earlier this month, leading synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks Launched a cell development kit (CDK) service for companies that want easy access to its biological engineering services.

  • Like the world of synthetic biology, the name is taken directly from the world of computers – tech companies have long offered software development kits that make it easier for people to create and test computer programs.

how it works: Biological engineering has long been slow and laborious—think of the lines of postgraduate students pipetting liquids by hand into a lab. But Ginkgo says its CDKs will streamline the process.

  • Customers like Motif FoodWorks — a Boston-based startup that makes ingredients for plant-based meat and dairy — could use a CDK to rapidly engineer the microbes needed by gingko at its automated biological foundry.
  • “They can focus on product development rather than hiring a group of biologists to create the DNA by hand,” says Patrick Boyle, head of codebase at Ginkgo.

By numbers: synthetic biology companies raised $9 billion From VCs and IPOs during the first half of the year, more than the amount raised throughout 2020.

  • “Biology and engineering are coming together in profound ways,” said Drew Andy, a Stanford University bioengineer. told the New York Times, “The potential is to flourish on a civilizational scale, not lacking in a world of abundance, to support a growing global population without destroying the planet.”
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Hunt: The first attempt was made to use synthetic biology to develop sustainable biofuels largely failed, and there’s ginkgo yet to bring in significant revenue,

  • Should the company’s approach be successful, it will come with biosafety risks. Andy says we should assume that In the near future, “anyone, anywhere can create any virus from scratch.”
  • yes but: Boyle says that Ginkgo is building biosafety into its platform, somewhat using automated tools that can scan synthesized DNA sequences for potentially dangerous strains.


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