Controversial Genetic Engineering Boosted in S.F. Incubator

The Bay Area already has a wide network of programs designed to speed up the growth of medical-technology startups. But Indie Bio, has an unusual focus: synthetic biology.

by Stephanie Lee, San Francisco Chronicle (TNS) / October 31, 2014

Color-changing flowers and cow-free milk may sound straight out of science fiction, but one venture capital firm is betting they’ll be the future of biotechnology before long.

Those are the kinds of quirky, yet potentially useful inventions that the Irish firm SOSventures wants to encourage by mentoring and funding life-science companies in a new San Francisco incubator.

The Bay Area already has a wide network of programs designed to speed up the growth of medical-technology startups. But Indie Bio, which SOSventures plans to open early next year, has an unusual focus: synthetic biology, a growing area of scientific research that involves engineering living organisms for practical purposes. It is a global market that will reach nearly $39 billion by 2020, according to Allied Market Research.

Tackling shortages

Synthetic biology could be the world’s best bet for tackling widespread problems like food and energy shortages, proponents say. They include Arvind Gupta, a partner at SOSventures and co-founder of the incubator, a 15,000-square-foot space being built on Market Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. Applications are due Nov. 7 to join the first companies in February.

“It’s about reprogramming or rewriting the software of life, DNA, in order to get organisms to do something useful for humans,” Gupta said.

Synthetic biology is not only new, but unregulated in the United States. Environmentalists worry that some products created with these new genetic-engineering techniques could have unseemly consequences if grown in the wild or used by humans. This month, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity urged 194 countries to regulate synthetic biology.

“Our concern at Friends of the Earth is, we need to make sure this is a technology that’s not going to do more harm than good,” said Dana Perls, who tracks the field for the environmental advocacy group.

Scientists have difficulty agreeing on one definition for synthetic biology. Most agree that it involves manipulating or creating living things wholesale, using techniques that are more precise and customizable than those used in traditional genetic engineering.

Adding or modifying one gene to genetically engineer foods such as corn and soy is the kind of genetic engineering that has been done since 1996. On the other hand, adding a set of genes or creating a genetic code that doesn’t exist in nature falls in the camp of synthetic biology. The technologies that have recently made the latter possible include machines that sequence DNA more quickly and cheaply than ever before, and machines that make DNA based on instructions programmed into a computer.

Reprogramming DNA

Scientists are still exploring the limits and possibilities of these inventions. Some researchers want to combine many genes from various organisms, while others are reprogramming DNA to make organisms function in certain ways.

Before setting up the San Francisco space, SOSventures backed startups that make silk sequenced from a slime-producing fish called hagfish; petunias that change color according to the time of day; benchtop-size DNA synthesizers; and synthetic cannabinoids, the active compound in cannabis plants, for medical treatments. Muufri of San Francisco is trying to make animal-free milk by bioengineering yeast to produce milk proteins. SOSventures hopes to attract more companies along these lines by offering a $35,000 seed investment, lab access and mentoring from investors, in exchange for 8 percent equity.

Gupta said that the venture capital firm would help companies meet regulations, but their creations shouldn’t be feared.

“Is that an unnatural milk?” he said of Muufri. “It’s been made completely naturally.”

Perls disagrees with that characterization. Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups are protesting a synthetic vanillin that Swiss company Evolva developed as an alternative to artificial vanilla flavor. The advantage of this and other synthetic biology foods, the company has said, is that they can be made in a lab, rather than in a field that has to be worked by laborers and is subject to unpredictable conditions like weather.

'Nothing natural’

“It requires computer-programmed DNA inserted into a yeast, which produces the vanillin compound,” Perls said. “There’s nothing natural about that process. Just because there might be an identical DNA skeleton, does that make it natural?”

Some research projects may do no harm individually, Perls said, but she worries that these products are entering the marketplace and environment before regulations have been adopted. Amyris in Emeryville has a synthetic biology platform that it uses or plans to use for ingredients in cosmetics, flavors and fragrances, lubricants, renewable diesel and jet fuel, and other products.

Federal agencies mostly, but not entirely, have legal authority to regulate the potential health, safety and environmental concerns of plants, microbes and animals engineered using synthetic biology, according to a May report by the J. Craig Venter Institute, a genomics research institution.

“Synthetic biology will lead to an influx of genetically engineered microbes intended for commercial use, which may overwhelm” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report said.

One aspect about synthetic biology is certain, Gupta said: “These are going to be interesting conversations for the public to have, because the public has never been confronted with anything like this.”

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle