Biohackers are taking biology to the desktop rather than labs to get experiments going on in their bedroom and garage labs. This is similar to how developers hacked together early computers manually with custom built circuit boards.openPCR
- these guys cut the price down from $5000 to $500 of a crucial step in synthetic biology and are allowing biohackers to take synthetic biology onto their desktop. Then Stacey Kuznetsov and Matt Mancuso
(a separate team of bio hackers) cut the price down to $85! I’m hoping that hardware hackers are going to rip the price down of DNA printing machines. The truly cheap machine will be a microfluidics solution to DNA synthesis. Instead of paying $50k for a DNA printer machine, I believe it can be done at a base cost price of $2 on chip bound to a super cheap PCR machine.
An essential part of synthetic biology is the ability to create DNA sequences that you can use in experiments. The analogue is being able to print a circuit board using an etching machine. So if you have a cool gene from an organism that you want to plug in to your custom organism, you will want to download the gene, then create it with a DNA synthesis machine. These machines are expensive (around $50k right now) but these companies are slashing the prices and you can just order from them so you don’t need the hardware. This will be like ordering electronic components online. Most DNA synthesis companies currently operate on a service base model with the cost base being on a $/ base pair of DNA. You’re not going to make a resistor in your bedroom, so by analogue DNA Synthesis may remain in the cloud.Cambrian Genomics
- this team is building a “DNA laser printer” which will cut the cost down of DNA printing by an order of magnitude.Halcyon Molecular
- the Founders Fund backed company that recently ran out of money and pivoted from DNA Sequencing due to Oxford Nanopore
beating them in the cost cutting race. Their next move seems to be currently secret.Gen 9
- is a synthesis company also in this area. See their paper here
DNA needs to be read. If you want to identify the genetic code of something you need to sequence it. This is like being able to open the source code other people’s programs to see how things work, debug your experiment and is the analogue of an oscilloscope in electronics.Oxford Nanopore
- this company from Oxford have developed a super elegant way to read DNA. Check out the site for the truly awesome video
. They also raised $50m recently
, going to show that this field is getting serious investment. Also check out Genia
If you’re going to embark on making a new organism that has wild and interesting applications, you will need to design the logic on “bio circuit” creation software.Genome Complier
- this team is building an AutoCAD for bio circuits. I’ve tested the software and the current version is accessible for the amateur. This is a vital part of the stack to allow people design and (in future) test their bio circuits out before they spend money and time on producing the physical product.ClothoCAD
- these guys are hooking up to biological data repositories, have built an app platform for bio design and share designs with others.Benchling
- making it easy to order primers and share plasmid maps with each other. If they play their cards right they might be able to become the github of biology.Teselagen
- are developing biological design automation systems. Worth signing up for their beta trial if your interested.
More design tools and companies to be found here
Some companies are going for the full stack approach and doing nearly everything in-house. These guys are the equivalent of IBM for computers back in the 1970’s.Grinko Biotech
- who’s slogan of “the organism is the product” can construct custom organisms in 6 months, a cycle time I expect will fall rapidly. You can go to this company and get an organism made for you - full stack. Their customers will be larger companies that have slower timelines and big budgets. Note Grinko Biotech buy their DNA from IDT/Blue Heron and DNA 2.0. Also check out Synthetic Genomics
Update (10/22/12): Transcriptic
is really worth checking out.
The companies mentioned above are mainly horizontal platform plays in this area. However, many of the startups are going for “killer apps” first.Refactored materials
- Using microbes and microfluidics to manufacture spider silk at scale. Imagine the applications in body armor, cars, mobile phone casing and bridges. Nexia Biotechnologies make a similar product called Biosteel.Universal Biomining
- this startup is making bacteria that can precipitate useful metals from water. Imagine vats of bacteria excreting gold and silver! Here is a TED talk
on the idea. One could do away with the lofty mines of old and just use the water around us to mine our metals.Sample 6 tech
- pathogen detection platform. There are many applications from their platform e.g. detecting e coli on food surfaces (you could have your food surface glow green with the bioluminescence gene from jellyfish if it detected too many germs) to a condom that would change colour if it detected an STD (on either side).
Joule, LS9, Genomatica, Sapphire Energy, Solazyme - these firms are all working on synthetically engineered organisms that can produce biofuels.
Some of the experiments in the field require a ton of iteration and testing. Automation and scaling tests is an area ripe for innovation. Seeing biologists use pipettes with their hands pains me.
Community is important to bring together information, people, teams, education and funding:BioCurious
- you can take labs down in Cupertino, get access to equipment and learn more about biohacking. I went down there and learnt a lot in one day, it was well worth it.iGEM
- standardisation of biological parts. I precursor for a github for biology.
Taking Synthetic Biology into the Cloud
Synthetic biology is moving to the cloud and this cloud will have a green lining. Some functions of the bio startup stack beyond in the cloud due to economies of scale and some beyond on the desktop for speed of experimentation and the creativity of being close to your experiment. In the future we will be able to do all of our design, tests and scaling from our desktop machine, laptop or even mobile. We are on the edge of synthetic biology startups becoming mainstream for tech investors and I personally would like this field to advance at rapid speed. If you know other companies in the field please get in contact email@example.com - I’d love to hear about them and add them to the post. Also if you want to learn more read this first textbook
on synthetic biology.