This Synthetic DNA Factory Is Building New Forms of Life

This Synthetic DNA Factory Is Building New Forms of Life


Inside this advanced foundry, biologists,
software engineers, and a fleet of automated robots are working side by side to crank up
the speed of nature. They’re taking synthetic DNA, remixing it
and programming microorganisms, turning these living samples into mini-factories that could
one day pump out new foods, fuels, and medicines. Every piece of DNA here is barcoded and cataloged
in what’s considered the world’s largest genetically engineered strain bank. This biological assembly line is at the heart
of an emerging field that’s raising billions of dollars and attracting a ton of attention:
synthetic biology. We are surrounded by biology. It’s personal care products, it’s the clothes
we wear in the form of cotton and hemp.. it’s the houses we live in, it’s gasoline, it’s
medicine. And because biology is in everything, if we
have the power to engineer biology, we have the power to affect every single aspect of
our life. Nature’s had billions of years of trial
and error to engineer biology and select its best designs. But we only just figured out how to read the
source code 50 years ago. Because every living thing – you, me, this
exotic bird, that oozing amoeba – are built from a unique set of instructions that come
down to just four letters. It’s the DNA that designs what the microorganism
does, it’s the DNA that decides what the organism looks like, how it acts, if it will grow or
if it will not grow, it all comes down to DNA. But thanks to a few technology curves, we
can now read, write, cut, and paste DNA faster and cheaper than ever, creating a whole new
set of instructions beyond what nature intended. Synthetic biology is defined not by tools,
but by intent. The vast majority of biologists in the world
are looking to understand something more about nature. And discover some secrets of nature as an
end in of itself. And that’s a profoundly empowering pursuit. What we’re trying to do in synthetic biology
instead is, engineer nature to do something that we want it to. So synthesize a vitamin. Or detect something in the environment. Or make a food product that you don’t normally
make. If you’ve ordered an Impossible Whopper
at Burger King, you’ve taken a bite of an engineered food product. “The “meat flavor” comes from heme, an iron
containing molecule from a special soybean protein, that was isolated from fermented
yeast. Tasty. The goal, and the intention, is purely different. It’s to elicit a function, and create a product,
create an item, create a cellular machine. Thinking of cells as programmable machines
is a convergence of biology, engineering, and computing. It sees the building blocks of life that form
cells and then tissues and so on – as parts that can be re-assembled, programmed, and
standardized. Just like transistors and logic gates inside
a computer chip. A computer understands zeros and ones. That’s the code. You can see biology in very much the same
way, where DNA is a code. And if you can work with that, you can encode
your organism. This all sounds like they’re making GMOs,
and you’d be right to make that association. Synthetic biology does leverage genetic engineering
as a tool in its toolkit. But instead of engineering wheat by adding
or tweaking a specific gene to make it more drought resistant for instance, synthetic
biology has the potential to turn that it into something totally different. You can create code that does not exist anywhere
in nature. You can make up your complete own code. Josh and Jaide both work at Ginkgo Bioworks,
a synthetic biology start-up that’s kicking this concept into high gear. They have unconventional titles, like organism
engineer and head of design, and give much of the lab benchwork to the robots, freeing
up their time for designing and tweaking. It’s like taking a tour through the visitor’s
center at Jurassic Park, just swap the dino blood for e.coli. We did a rough count the other day, and realized
that we have worked in over 50 organisms, or so, in the last year. Some organisms are really good at making proteins. Some are really good at making fatty hydro-phobic
molecules. Some are good at making drugs and vitamins. Some are really easy, genetically, to manipulate. And so, rather than reinvent that in some
organism, we want to make use of that. Once you pick an organism you want to run
with, how exactly do you engineer it to do what you want? At Ginkgo, it’s a classic engineering cycle:
design – build – test. I lead a group of computational biologists,
and data scientists that is designing the experiments, designing the DNA’s, designing
the organisms and the genotypes to support the various organism engineering programs. I work with the foundry to make sure that
the overall vision of the organism engineering gets fulfilled. So step one is identify the DNA that you need,
and have the DNA synthesized. High throughput DNA synthesis means that we
can actually design DNA in a computer. And then actually have a machine make it,
without us having physically stitched together all of these different pieces of DNA in the
lab. So that’s changed our ability to write DNA,
and create DNA, really, really profoundly. As a graduate student, when I was doing an
experiment, I was always thinking about the ten or the 20 samples, that I could physically
handle on my own. And fit into an apparatus to answer a question
I cared about. Here we can do things at scale. We will design a library of a thousand or
5,000 genes, and then we can take those and screen those all in one go, find the best
candidates, and then use those to build the best possible pathway. After we’ve put a nice pathway together, we
will start improving the strains. We have protein engineers, so if we need to
modify our proteins to become more efficient or be more specific. We can use them for that task, we have data
scientists, we have experts in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Our foundry is basically an automated laboratory. We have different platforms of technologies
put together to be able to do everything from generating the DNA, to putting it into strains,
to growing them in fermenters and testing how they would potentially look at in industrial
scales. Every piece of DNA ever made every container,
every reagent, everything has a barcode. For every strain we make, we generate a lot
of data. All that data will be put into our database
that has been designed by our software engineers. Right now, rough order of magnitude, I think
we’re doing millions of operations per month. But even with this operational efficiency
and rapid prototyping, biology is still a messy science and they’re constantly going
back to the drawing board. For me, this makes it really fun. A good experiment is something that tells
you you were wrong. And that’s a moment when you learn something
new, and when you change the plan. So, we do it all the time. Because there is so much knowledge we don’t
have, it’s very much a numbers game. The more we can test, the higher probability
we have of success, and the more things we test, the more knowledge we accumulate. And all that knowledge can be reused for future
projects. It’s a grand vision: seeing biology as a symbiotic
manufacturing technology and rewiring organisms to do what we want them to do. This could be applied to so many problems
that the potential seems limitless. We started out many, many years ago, actually
working in flavors and fragrances. Which it seems like a little frivolous, but
there’s a lot of interesting biology there. A lot of flavors and fragrances are extracted
from really rare plants, that only grow in specific climates. Or plants that are growing extinct. And if we can actually bring those out of
luxury markets. And make those sustainably. Then those environments, those biomes, can
actually thrive and survive. We’re trying to engineer bacteria to sense
and to respond to treat complex diseases. Some of the things I’m most excited about
now, actually, are agriculture. A lot of people don’t realize it. But about 3% of the world’s carbon budget
is spent making chemical fertilizer every year. So we started a joint venture to develop organisms
that can both fix nitrogen, so basically fertilize soil. And form symbioses with grain crops. We try to make biology easier to engineer,
to create solutions that will help ensure a sustainable future, not to destroy it. Yet with this new venture comes the opposite side of the coin: the risks. There’s still a lot we don’t understand
about fundamental biology, and while nothing’s left the lab yet for Ginkgo, scientists are
tinkering with life’s building blocks and rewriting its code right now. What would our world look like with more synthetic
organisms and products in circulation? And with the pace and cost of these technologies
becoming more accessible than ever, what’s the risk of someone turning a synthetic organism
into a dangerous pathogen? These are open questions and challenges ahead,
and will take a mix of policy experts, scientists, and government leaders to figure out as the
field speeds forward, one gene tweak at a time.

71 thoughts on “This Synthetic DNA Factory Is Building New Forms of Life

  1. If they dont make the giant turtle things from xenoblade x I will be more than disapointed
    or the catgirls from xenoblade x
    Actually, do everything from xenoblade x, it will be very interesting

  2. Just because we can do a thing, doesn't mean we should. There is no balance in these engineered organisms – just wait.

  3. As glamorous as this looks, I can assure you, the work is boring asf, slow, tedious and long. This only looks good on paper and as sensationalized media fodder but it will have you questioning why you got the degree you have in regards to this, plus there’s no money in this not now at least and won’t be for some time. In the mean time you’re better off going to med school or nursing or if you’re Chem E going into petroleum engineering or gov employment. Biotech is cutting edge, however this is fringe play in the nature sandbox type stuff. I can’t imagine this company is generating any meaningful profit. Don’t fall for the hype you will be an under paid disgruntled employee lol!

  4. Nope, nope nope… Not going to eat their bullshit… I'll stick to growing my own and harvesting my seeds.. I'd rather eat my neighbors cat than eat their bullshit

  5. Pure human folly. Dont worry. If we make laws that say not to use this to kill off large swaths of poor or as a threat to release it on your own people to target certain organs or brain tissue to act and think a certain way, and not to mix it with natural life…nothing bad will happen. History has proven that advances in science never have immediately led to abuse. And since life is sacred…I am sure bad guys will understand. Not like this can get out of hand in anyway since we know all there is to know about the subject. Bend it all to our will is it? Sounds like the mentality of a virus or parasite. Good to know these kinds of thinkers are in charge.

  6. these are the people that actually take humanity to the next level of evolution. They are the ones that should be famous. Not the troglodytes we watch on social media / TV.

  7. They should consider making pesticide resistant honey bees, with all the respects that go with that study and impact, when they get to that point

  8. Fascinating also terrifying. If a mad scientist gets a hold of this. he could create a virus that can kill all life on earth.

  9. All this is driven by…..greed, not the benefit to mankind. These "advancements" will be used by whoever has the $$$ and to control and rule.

  10. I don't understand all this really. Say they altered my DNA to let me have webbed fingers for example, how long would it take the skin to grow between the fingers or would it only grow from birth??

  11. Yes we have a fertilizer problem in world today, like quantum computing we are looking into synthetic organisms too to figure out the efficient solutions. Nice job people.

  12. Some day artificial intelligence will be able to design exactly what we need using the data from this work. I bet it would see the patterns in DNA to understand the language. Once this happens the world will change on a grand scale. I agree, it's both exciting and scary at the same time. Hopefully they are building safegaurds along the way to combat any bad actors who want to do harm.

  13. So the speaker in this doco Steve Dunn, was their first experiment realized? Is anyone else worried that this is not a democratic process, deciding what will be unleashed on the world? It is bad enough that there are plenty of disease causing pathogens we have had to combat, but why would you encourage possible catastrophe? We know from what humans have already done in the same vein, that so much damage has been caused to the biosphere already. Why toy with making it worse?

  14. this is terrifying tbh man… just think about it… soon there will be synthetic organisms roaming the streets and starting to over throw the human population or some crazy shit like that. Beware of the risk to reward ratio.

  15. I'm more concerned about the implications of corporations having patents on life. Monsanto's fuckery in this realm is proof that greed overcomes ethics. When they bioengineered a new strain of seed, and then tried to destroy the naturally occuring origin seeds, so that they could monopolize the patent on their new strain, that's when you have to start questioning the legality of such ownership.

  16. Imagine how hard is it to design a nuclear submarine from scratch.
    Now imagine how much harder is it to reverse engineer it.
    Guess what happens if you try to tweak a nuclear reactor code without understanding it.
    Now take into account that the smartest program is super primitive compared to a cockroach brain.

  17. Have you noticed there are no latinos or african-american people working there? Why do you think is that?

    I'm just curious to learn why is that happening besides the easiest reason such as racism. Do you think these etnic groups are not as interested as whites in stem fields?

    By the way I'm latino and I don't want to be offensive in any way, it just called my attention.

  18. Others see this as a potetially dangerous science, but I see this as a step towards making The Space Marines for The God Emperor of Humanity

  19. Soon to be making thc and cbd by the vat for the corporation that owns corona. From brewing beer to brewing your weed

  20. I want to work here in the future, they have the same idea with me, if we can crack the DNA code and use it for our own, there's no limitation. With just 0 and 1, we program the computer to do what we want, even create AI, now imagine you have A, T, G, C and you have access to mother nature's library of life forms, we can even create a brain, it's sound so awesome

  21. “YEAH, BUT YOUR SCIENTISTS WERE SO PREOCCUPIED WITH WHETHER OR NOT THEY COULD THAT THEY DIDN’T STOP TO THINK IF THEY SHOULD.”
    .
    Couldn't resist…

  22. So these "bioweapons" aka:- engineered GMOs & DNA to make pathogens that are used by government's (umbrella corp) worldwide in the form of aerosols to blanket spray (chemtrails) entire population's which does away with immunization, & also for control & depopulation is worth trillions…..
    My name is Alice & this is my story……

  23. And when they will start testing on humans for military use they'll end up starting the locust war as same as gears of war

  24. This is horrifying. Isn't there any regulation on this kind of thing yet? What in the world are these people going to produce; what is their end game I wonder. They are talking about making a living organism that they want to let loose on the fields. This bothers me a lot.

  25. They have all these things but what they apparently don't have is precautions for contamination of the outside world. Just great. -.-

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