• The Promise, and Challenges, of Synthetic Biology

    synthetic-biologySynthetic biology, a discipline that combines chemistry, engineering, and molecular biology to manipulate particular molecules for specific ends, is a little too complex for most Bay Area cocktail parties, where talk of Snapchat usually predominates. “It’s a quagmire of discussion,” says Hemai Parthasarathy, a neuroscientist who is today the scientific director at Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs in San Francisco.

    It could also be one of the most lucrative fields in science. By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, a growing number of established companies and startups are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform new functions that could benefit everything from the agricultural to cosmetic industries.

    One such company is Pareto Biotechnologies, which has already raised seed funding from Breakout Labs and other, undisclosed investors. Soon, Pareto will be seeking Series A funding, too.

    The company, though young, is farther along than most. Ten year’s worth of lab work has already gone into its platform by founders who include a chemical biology and proteomics professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego, and a serial entrepreneur who has previously founded three other molecular biology companies.

    “I don’t want to call other companies we’ve seen naïve,” says Parthasarathy. “But there isn’t necessarily depth to their underlying technology. A lot [of teams] will submit proposals to us that are theoretically sound, but execution is where synthetic biology lives and dies, and it always ends up being harder than you think.”

    Pareto is also going after not just one molecule or organism but a system for designing whole classes of molecules, and the company has already developed enzymatic pathways that can, it hopes, lead more quickly to end products.

    Right now, for example, the company is working with a cosmetics company that “has a molecule that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars to them,” says Pareto’s CEO and cofounder Jamie Bacher. “The chemical falls perfectly in the class that we can work with,” and it wants Pareto to modify it in a way that improves its interaction with skin.

    Pareto has designed a simple, two-week experiment to see if it can produce the desired outcome. If it succeeds, scaling comes next. Pareto wants to be able to generate enough molecules – maybe a few milligrams’ worth — to prove to the cosmetics company that it’s a viable commercial process. Cosmetics happens to be a $200 billion a year industry, but it’s just one of the sectors Pareto is targeting. “We can cross up and down industries,” says Bacher.

    Pareto isn’t without its challenges. While it may have a jump on some of the competition thanks to its knowledge around certain metabolic pathways, it’s still in the process of proving out its technology.

    The broader industry, while potentially quite lucrative, is also often dogged by concerns over the cultural implications of altering nature. Consumers might not care what was involved in the making of their anti-aging creams, but flavors and fragrances that are being genetically modified by micro-organisms in vats — rather than extracted from plants — are getting pushback from critics who say the technologies threaten farmers in third world countries.

    There’s also debate over what’s “natural.” Explains Parthasarathy, “You can chemically synthesize some of these molecules of interest using organic chemistry processes, and people call that artificial flavoring. Or you can grow it in a forest and purify it and then it’s ‘natural’ flavor. People claim synthetic biology products are natural because they’re being grown in an organism, and there’s some question whether that’s a valid designation.”

    Ultimately, it comes down to consumer buy-in, notes Parthasarathy. For her part, she thinks it’s all much ado about nothing. “I think it’s irrelevant how a particular chemical is produced, whether it’s natural or artificial. If it’s a purified chemical, it’s irrelevant to one’s health how it came to be purified.”

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