Sometimes one stumbles upon pieces of information which leads you to suspect that you just might have missed some important, ongoing development of non-negligible magnitude. Thus, if you already heard the names of the three gigantic tech companies that have quietly invested in the area of synthetic biology you might skip this article. Otherwise, please keep on and enter enlightenment.
To start with the definition, synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems, and also the re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes. Though it might seem as a novel area of research, the industry is showing rapid and significant growth progress.
Wha Tech recently wrote that over the years, the demand for synthetic biology is likely to increase owing to the rocketing R&D expenditure in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, growing demand for synthetic genes, rising production of genetically modified crops, and continually rising funding in the field of synthetic biology. As a natural consequence, ethical and social issues such as bio safety and bio security are major factors that are restricting the growth of this market. In any case though, the global synthetic biology market is expected to reach $5,630 million in 2018 from $1,923 million in 2013, according to Market and Markets.
It might be difficult to believe that companies that have traditionally relied on silicon chips, mobile apps, and lines of software code could profit from something as seemingly disconnected as making biological engineering as predictable as traditional engineering fields, but a closer look into research and development spending hints that it may not be that far-fetched after all. Interestingly enough, a recent article by The Motley Fool reveals that 3D-software giant Autodesk, the computer gods at Intel and the corporate powerhouse Microsoft are all quietly investing in synthetic biology. According to Autodesk’s CTO Jeff Kowalski, synthetic biology could actually be a more lucrative opportunity than even 3D-printing (!).
An actual CAD program would allow researchers to design virtual organisms from DNA strand to cell chassis, test their behavior in virtual environments, and model changes to biological systems without lifting a pipette would be a dream achievement for Autodesk. Researchers could accurately predict the function of a cell before it was built, similar to how virtual airplanes are expected to fly when the first prototype is built. There is a long way to go before we can fine-tune our understanding of complex biological systems, but even basic early tools could help Autodesk diversify and expand its $2.3 billion in annual revenue. Better yet, digitizing life could become a major revenue source for the company by the end of the decade.
Whereas Autodesk wants to digitize life; Intel wants to digitize research. For instance, if the complex environment of a wet lab (biology lab) can be quantified with software and machine learning, then other systems, such as a factory or medical facility, could deploy similar technology to reduce unnecessary costs from human error. It is still in the early days, but Intel could very well be developing a revolutionary technology much different from its core business.
Moreover, Microsoft Research created the Genetic Engineering of Cells, or GEC, simulator that breaks cellular processes into their most basic interactions by focusing on the concept of modularity, or in this case, biological parts. Consider that genes and proteins are largely responsible for dictating how a cell functions, but we are still learning how specific combinations interact in even the most well understood organisms. That can be troublesome when deciding which biological parts are needed to provide a desired outcome, such as producing a specific chemical, and has led to many costly mistakes for industrial biotech and agricultural companies. GEC aims to solve that by translating desired functionality into DNA code, which is the reverse of current biological engineering efforts.
We are evidentially still at an early stage where it comes to synthetic biology, but that several technological giants are starting to research solutions outside of their respective realms is of course very intriguing. We especially admire the efforts of Autodesk, which seems to aim to operate with the most mind-boggling solutions we have seen in engineering for quite a while. All companies that dare to step out of their comfort zones should be rewarded, if not with money at least with respect. We have seen so many mistakes where it comes to diversification during the years, but the guts to take these steps in times which are not impregnated by desperation should definitely be admired. It is definitely this type of curiosity that propels mankind forward towards new achievements.