Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sunday Globe Special: Factories of the Future

Kind of scary if you ask me:

"Manufacturing’s cutting edge — custom organisms" by Scott Kirsner, Globe Correspondent  March 22, 2015

If textile mills represented the cutting edge of Massachusetts manufacturing in the early 1800s, this is one example of the extremely advanced manufacturing that could thrive in the 21st century — a field called “synthetic biology” that holds immense promise — but also freaks people out. It involves writing genetic code and inserting it into simple organisms to change their function.

More GMOs.

Boosters point to the possibility of vats of algae cranking out fuels or industrial chemicals that today come from petroleum, or to bespoke bacteria that could diagnose diseases sooner than we can today. But others worry about terrorists producing ultra-potent pathogens, or someone accidentally spawning a fast-replicating organism that damages the environment.

“I think the good far outweighs the bad,” says Adam Goulburn, an investor at Lux Capital in New York who follows the emerging “synbio” industry. He compares it to 3-D printing, where it has been demonstrated that a 3-D printer can be used to create a working gun — but also inexpensive prosthetic hands.

That explains the bu$ine$$ $ection ob$e$$ion with that $h**.

At Ginkgo, more than $15 million in early funding came from government agencies like DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced research group — which had also bankrolled the ARPANET.


Their belief, Jason Kelly, a founder of Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, says, was the United States “should be on the leading edge of creating tools to program cells — sort of like creating the base elements of the early Internet.”

While much of Ginkgo’s focus is on flavors and fragrances, the company is also designing probiotics — strains of bacteria that will do good things for humans. 

It's always sold to us that way by the ruling cla$$.

I used to believe them. Not anymore.

Some possibilities that Kelly mentions: probiotics that could fight the naturally occurring bacteria in your armpits or in your mouth, where they produce odor and tooth decay, but the industry “is going to grow quickly, especially in Boston,” Harvard Medical School professor Pamela Silver says.

What's wrong with deodorant and a toothbrush?

A nonprofit in Cambridge called iGEM runs an international competition that teaches college and high school students about synbio, “training the workforce of the future,” vice president Meagan Lizarazo said.

Some might call it brainwashing, and who knows? They may have a few cells they can inject into your gray matter to, you know, fix ya! If the pills and vaccines don't work.

Until now, Tom Knight says, engineering biology “has been an artisanal craft. You did things at a small scale, manually. We’re moving into an age when we can start automating a lot of the processes and take advantage of economies of scale.”

When I spoke to Knight, a computer science pioneer at MIT a decade ago, he felt like synbio was still too young to be thought of as a “commercial enterprise.” But we might have arrived at that moment, similar to the spark-into-fire early days of the PC, the Internet, biotech, or the textile mill.

It's alive! It's alive!

The unanswered question of the next decade is whether the power players of this new industry will grow here.


Would you like to see how it's made?