Synthetic biology is not science fiction. Investors should get acquainted with a technology that will create sustainable solutions in many industries.
Sarah Tunnell: Ed, thanks so much for taking some time today. I know you recently put out a very detailed paper on the topic of synthetic biology, but could you give us a short overview into what that really is?
Ed Bryan: For millennia, people have harnessed synthetic biology, have harnessed nature, brewing beer; you’re using nature to produce things. Synthetic biology is accelerating that. It’s building on these processes from nature that we’ve used for thousands of years. Nature has also given us a very efficient and powerful programming language—DNA. DNA is like the software of life. And so you can use the cell and DNA and make changes to that, to program cells to produce almost anything. There’s a study that McKinsey published last year that estimated that more than 60% of the physical inputs to our economy could be produced using synthetic biology.
Sarah Tunnell: Where do we see it? Is it something that already exists today?
Ed Bryan: Synthetic biology isn’t science fiction. It’s around us. It’s in many of the things that we use today on a daily basis. So, take cosmetics. One of the key ingredients of cosmetics is a compound called squalene. Squalene was traditionally harvested from the livers of deep sea sharks. And there’s a company that found a way to alter the genome of a yeast cell, so that the yeast cell will produce squalene, which can then be used in cosmetics. There’s a company based in California that, today, can take CO2 and methane from the air, and use a type of cell, that they found in the ocean, that can produce a resin that is made and molded into forks and knives.
Sarah Tunnell: Synthetic biology, really, isn’t something that we’ve heard so much about in the past. Why is this something that you’re talking about today?
Ed Bryan: The price of sequencing a genome has declined a millionfold, from hundreds of millions of dollars, down to just hundreds of dollars. So that price decline has enabled researchers to sequence genomes and understand so much more about genetics. There’s also other technologies as well. So, actually creating new DNA from scratch has enabled an explosion of different types of experiments to understand what genomics means. And then, another very significant development recently, has been AI and machine learning technologies. You need to have these data processing technologies to make sense of genomics. And, so, it’s this confluence of technologies that has accelerated discoveries in this space.
Sarah Tunnell: If you’re an investor looking at this space, what are some of the things that you should be considering?
Ed Bryan: I think from an investor perspective, one of the key considerations is having a cross-sector approach. So many of the initial applications of synthetic biology started off in the healthcare sector. And, because of the rapidly declining costs of synthetic biology, the technology is moving to other industries. There will be opportunities for outsource service providers who will help some of these companies grow and mature and improve their profitability.
Sarah Tunnell: Right, what are some of the risks that investors should be considering, if this is a space that they’re interested in?
Ed Bryan: So, for consumer adoption, there is a risk that consumers are put off by the prospect of synthetic biology. Large consumer packaged goods companies are starting to adopt synthetic biology to make their products. And those companies are experts at educating consumers, at marketing around these types of new products. So their adoption is, for us, a positive sign. The second key risk is around regulation. And what we find is that countries around the world are taking a proactive approach to areas that are connected to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Countries are actually taking a proactive approach to encouraging the growth of the synthetic biology industry.
Sarah Tunnell: What does synthetic biology mean to investors specifically focused on sustainability?
Ed Bryan: Consumers and companies and governments want solutions right now to address sustainability, and synthetic biology can help them achieve that.
Sarah Tunnell: How far does it go? What are some of the futuristic applications of synthetic biology that we haven’t even thought of yet?
Ed Bryan: I don’t know if you saw the movie, The Martian? Matt Damon was trying to grow plants on the surface of Mars. If he had a synthetic biology lab, he could literally design the plant to match and thrive in the Mars microenvironment. So, now you’re talking about terraforming the surface of Mars. You could design a plant to release oxygen into the environment—make it hospitable for humans. The bottom line here is that synthetic biology isn’t science fiction. It’s in many of the products that we consume right now.
- Edward Bryan, CFA
- Senior Research Analyst—Sustainable Thematic Equities