Can synthetic biology save us? This scientist thinks so

Drew Endy, a bioengineering professor, in his office at Stanford University, Oct. 22, 2021. Endy sees synthetic biology as a sweeping force that can reshape the sciences, society and culture. (Photo: NYTimes)
When the family house in Devon, Pennsylvania, caught fire, Drew Endy, then 12, carried out his most cherished possession — his personal computer.
Years later, as a graduate student, Endy was accepted to PhD. programs in biotechnology and political science.اضافة اعلان

The episodes seem to sum up Endy, a most unusual scientist: part engineer, part philosopher, whose conversation is laced with references to Descartes and Dylan, as well as DNA.

He’s also an evangelist of sorts. Endy, a 51-year-old professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, is a star in the emerging field of synthetic biology. He is its most articulate enthusiast, inspiring others to see it as a path to a better world, a transformational technology to feed the planet, conquer disease, and combat pollution.

The optimism behind synthetic biology assumes that biology can now largely follow the trajectory of computing, where progress was made possible by the continuous improvement in microchips, with performance doubling and price dropping in half every year or two for decades. The underlying technologies for synthetic biology — gene sequencing and DNA synthesis — are on similar trends.

As in computing, biological information is coded in DNA, so it can be programmed — with the goal of redesigning organisms for useful purposes. The aim is to make such programming and production faster, cheaper and more reliable, more an engineering discipline with reusable parts and automation and less an artisanal craft, as biology has been.

Synthetic biology, proponents say, holds the promise of reprogramming biology to be more powerful and then mass-producing the turbocharged cells to increase food production, fight disease, generate energy, purify water and devour carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Biology and engineering are coming together in profound ways,” Endy said. “The potential is for civilization-scale flourishing, a world of abundance not scarcity, supporting a growing global population without destroying the planet.”
That idyllic future is decades off, if it is possible at all. But in the search for the proverbial next big thing over the next 20 years, synthetic biology is a prime candidate. And no one makes the case more persuasively than Endy.

He sees synthetic biology as a sweeping force that can reshape the sciences, society and culture — as the personal computer and internet have — rather than just a new industry. 

Yet Endy was a founder of two startups (one acquired, one folded) and his wife, Christina Smolke, an adjunct professor at Stanford, is chief executive of Antheia, a startup that uses synthetic biology to make ingredients for essential medicines.

As a nascent industry, Endy says he believes we are at a turning point — one essential to its future. “For the first time ever, synthetic biology companies are on the verge of making money instead of consuming money,” he said.
The money flowing in is still the clearest sign of commercial optimism.

Synthetic biology companies raised $9 billion from venture capitalists and initial public offerings worldwide in the first half of this year, more than the amount raised all last year, according to SynBioBeta, an industry newsletter. In 2015, the total raised was $1 billion.

The industry, broadly, is divided into tools makers and product developers. The tool makers include well-established suppliers to synthetic biology companies and others, like the gene sequencers Illumina and Pacific Biosciences, as well as DNA synthesizers, which are younger companies like Twist Bioscience and Codex DNA.

Ginkgo Bioworks, which recently went public, has an all-in-one biofoundry that others can use to make synthetic biology products — much as Amazon supplies cloud computing services to many companies.

The product developers, which include organizations from tiny startups to pharma giants, are developing products and new manufacturing processes with synthetic biology across the spectrum of industry. Synthetic biology, for example, was employed to accelerate the production of COVID-19 vaccines.

Endy’s technical achievements include work in amplifying genetic logic, rewritable DNA data storage, genome refactoring and developing reusable biological parts. But perhaps his greatest skills are as a communicator and a social engineer.

This sometimes manifests in the form of seemingly outlandish, calculated exaggerations and clever turns of phrase — all part of his verbal arsenal.
He’ll hold up a smartphone and say that in not so many years it can be made with synthetic biology. Who knows if it could be done or, if so, it would ever make economic sense. But his point is the vast potential of synthetic biology to produce new materials.

The annual garden clippings of the small city of Menlo Park, California, carted away into compost, Endy said, weigh more than the global production of microchips. Well, maybe, but they are hardly comparable.

“Yes, it’s a provocation,” Endy replied. “But it points to first principles. Biology is literally a surplus manufacturing capacity. It happens so much we don’t think about it. Biology is making this stuff for free.”

Another Endy one-liner: “All atoms are local.” So synthetic biology lashed to the internet will enable a “design anywhere, grow everywhere” paradigm that could, he said, lead to a “massive upgrading of local manufacturing” and an economic “rebalancing in favor of deglobalization.”

Synthetic biology, according to Endy, could also prompt a rethinking of humanity’s relationship to nature. “It’s an expression of human intention in partnership with nature,” he said. “We’re speaking with life.”

Synthetic biology holds great promise, but there is a dark side as well. Hacking biology and democratizing the tools to do so raises the specter of an angry loner or terrorist group creating a build-your-own pandemic genetically targeted at their enemies, among other potential horrors.

Endy, though synthetic biology’s champion, has been cleareyed about the risks since the outset. He was the lead author of a report for the Pentagon’s advanced research agency in 2003 that laid out a framework for developing synthetic biology and managing its risks. In the report, he assessed the spectrum of dangers and imagined the bad-actor threat as “Bin Laden Genetics.”

Today, risk management, Endy said, should start with the assumption that in the not too distant future “anyone, anywhere can make any virus from scratch.”

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