Twist Bioscience, cofounded by Emily Leproust, one of Fast Company’s 2015 Most Creative People in Business, has just sold 100 million base pairs of synthetic DNA to Ginkgo Bioworks. This single order is equivalent to 10% of total DNA synthesis capacity worldwide, and is the biggest partnership that currently exists in the world of synthetic biology.
A lot of fundraising went into this effort: Last year, both companies joined forces to raise $100 million in capital to facilitate this sale. The investment allowed Twist to produce synthetic DNA on a massive scale, and provides Ginkgo with the raw materials it needs to design new products and rapidly prototype them. Together, the companies are hoping to accelerate the pace of growth in the industry by pushing forward the cycle of designing, building, and testing new products.
So what exactly does one do with massive quantities of synthetic DNA? Companies like Ginkgo use these materials to modify the DNA sequence in biological organisms like yeast, bacteria, or algae to give it new functionality. For example, in nature, yeast ferments sugar to make alcohol, but by artificially editing its DNA, it can be used to create nylon. (You can now buy carpets made from nylon fibers produced by yeast rather than oil from DuPont.) Once DNA sequences have been edited in a particular organism, it will replicate on its own.
However, the process of producing synthetic DNA takes extensive testing. “The genomes [of naturally occurring organisms] that are being modified have evolved over millions of years, so they are very good,” Leproust explains. “Anything that we do to modify it usually doesn’t work immediately, so we need to experimentally try a lot of different modifications to find a combination that works for a particular application. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
While DNA editing has been possible since the 1970s, the cost of acquiring synthetic DNA and testing different sequences was high, so the design process took a lot of time. While the synthetic biology industry has been growing and driving the cost of production down, this new partnership will drive momentum.
“In the past, the limitation has been how much DNA a company could afford,” Leproust says. “They may not have had enough DNA to try out all the necessary options to get the right fit.” Twist’s goal was to drive down the cost of synthetic DNA to the extent that a company such as Ginkgo has an almost unlimited ability to test and prototype. Twist’s major innovation involved the creation of a proprietary synthetic DNA manufacturing process that uses a silicon platform, rather than plastic plates that have been widely used in the industry. This has allowed them to produce high-quality synthetic genes faster and more cheaply. “This is a new paradigm in synthetic biology, because we can explore more options than we ever could before,” she says.
Synthetic DNA is currently used in four main industries. The production of chemicals ranging from biofuels to fragrances; agriculture, such as the creation of fertilizer; drug development; and as raw materials to conduct experiments in academia. Ginkgo focuses primarily on industrial chemistry, meeting customer needs in industries ranging from cosmetics to nutrition to health. As one example, Ginkgo has been modifying yeast to replicate the scent of a rose, since natural rose oil has been in increasing short supply. With its new batch of synthetic DNA, the company will be rapidly prototyping many more scents, flavors, and drugs that will hit the market over the next couple of years.