Synthetic Biology and Luxury Goods

There is no single definition that encompasses the broad scope of synthetic biology, but the general consensus includes the use of biological building blocks to create products not naturally found in the world or to improve on existing systems. Synthetic biology is a diverse production toolkit that can be applied at all levels of biological systems, from individual proteins to complex tissues. The application of this toolkit specifically to chemical manufacturing is called bioprocessing, and it involves using microbial cells as factories for chemical synthesis. The potential benefits of bioprocessing are broad and significant: the bioproduction of chemicals could reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels for chemical production, offer green alternative to current chemicals, and allow for the production of previously finite natural resources. The global synthetic biology market for chemicals was estimated to be at $11 billion in 2016, with an expected overall economic impact of $100 billion by 2025.

Widespread bioprocessing has huge potential in the next ten years to reduce costs and improve clean resource production. However, certain limitations currently prevent bioprocessing from becoming scalable. While genetic sequencing technologies have significantly improved the pace at which microbes can be designed to produce chemicals of interest, designing the ideal titer of chemical concentration, the rate of production, and the overall yield still need to be optimized. These processes require large scale manufacturing facilities in combination with DNA synthesis foundries, specialized workforces, and new regulatory systems for quality assurance . Beyond the logistics of production, current social perceptions of synthetic biology are also a rate limiting factor. Market readiness cannot be presumed, and if the patchy adoption of GMO products is an indication, there could be significant consumer pushback.

The application of bioprocessing specifically to chemicals in luxury goods, however, may be a promising trial industry in which to begin the transition from traditional methods of chemical manufacturing to bioproduction. Luxury items such as perfumes and high-end cosmetics are produced in small quantities, making immediate scalability more feasible. These items are marketed to specific demographics that are likely to be familiar with the utilization of microbes for human health and wellness. Consider the likely demographic appeal of Kombucha in the United States, a fermented tea drink that advertises microbiome health. Individuals drawn to glass-bottled, $4 healthy-gut tea are likely to be the same individuals drawn to skin cream purporting to have ingredients made by specially designed microbes.

Most importantly, however, luxury goods companies can still achieve the same cost-savings and environmentally conscious benefits that large chemical manufacturers would eventually hope to do through bioprocessing. For example, flavors and fragrances are traditionally sourced from botanical sources. These processes are expensive and labor-intensive, not to mention the pressure they put on ecological systems. In the same way that bioprocessing reduces the reliance on fossil fuels for traditional manufacturing, fragrance companies can protect the natural environment by moving towards synthetic sources. From both a benefits and scalability perspective, luxury goods offer an ideal market in which to introduce scaled bioprocessing.

This potential for bioprocessing applied to luxury flavors and fragrance was demonstrated by Ginkgo Biowork’s deal with Robertet, a French luxury fragrance and flavor manufacturer that specializes in natural raw materials. Ginkgo Bioworks is a synthetic biology manufacturer that alters the genomes of yeast cells that then produce the desired chemical products through fermentation. Ginkgo’s yeast platform was first harnessed to produce rose oil for Robertet. After the successful test project, Ginkgo is developing seven lactone ingredients (stone and tropical fruit notes) for fragrance use. Ginkgo was able to scale production from original test cells to a 50,000 liter fermentation, surpassing the desired product concentration titer by 50%. Robertet is now able to directly produce the necessary extracts it requires for fragrance compared to being at the whim of naturally grown fruits, the price and availability of which can fluctuate dramatically depending upon weather conditions and other environmental factors. Robertet additionally benefits from the public relations opportunity to demonstrate their reduced impact on the environment, a message of which luxury brands are increasingly conscious.  Critically, Robertet does not even stray away from its identity of raw materials: Ginkgo’s system relies on the natural fermentation systems of yeast and produces a wholly natural extract. Robertet can even argue that their ingredients are purer, given the level of contamination control available within a fermentation vat compared to an orchard.

It is critical to note that while Ginkgo was capable of producing 50,000 liters of product for Robertet, commercial production is not the ultimate goal of the company. Ginkgo is a design firm for organisms; they identify the genetic sequences that code for production of desired chemicals and embed that in yeast cells that they then license to their clients. Those clients will have to find a large scale biomanufacturer—something that is currently sparse. As was mentioned previously, the scaling of bioprocessing will ultimately require collaboration between large scale manufacturing facilities and innovative DNA foundries.

The full commercialization of bioprocessing is years away and will require the evolution and collaboration of a number of different players. Luxury goods, however, offer a tractable entry point with an approachable customer base and feasible production capacity requirements. The benefits obtained by these companies will act as case studies for larger scale manufacturers, ultimately facilitating the transition of both societal and commercial interests in favor of bioprocessing. Potential is already being demonstrated in biofuels, textiles, plastics, and even pharmaceuticals; but luxury items are a safe and non-threatening arena in which to introduce new manufacturing methods. Scalable bioprocessing will not only reduce the costs of these products but also protect environmental resources, harnessing natural systems to usher in a new era of production.

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Sonja K. Eliason

February 1, 2021