Like many novel technologies in this age of TED Talks and Silicon Valley triumphalism, synthetic biology—synbio for short—floats on a sea of hype. One of its founding scientists, Boston University biomedical engineer James Collins, has called it “genetic engineering on steroids.” Whereas garden-variety genetic engineers busy themselves moving genes from one organism into another—to create tomatoes that don’t bruise easily, for example—synthetic biologists generate new DNA sequences the way programmers write code, creating new life-forms.
It may sound like science fiction, but synbio companies have already performed modest miracles. The California-based firm Amyris, for example, has harnessed the technology to make a malaria drug that now comes from a tropical plant. In order to do this, company scientists leveraged the well-known transformative powers of yeast, which humans have used for millennia to turn, say, the sugar in grape juice into alcohol: They figured out how the wormwood tree generates artemisinic acid—the compound that makes up the globe’s last consistently effective anti-malarial treatment—and programmed a yeast strain to do the same thing. And there could be more innovations on the horizon. In 2011, Craig Venter, the scientist/entrepreneur who spearheaded the mapping of the human genome, vowed to synthesize an algae that would use sunlight to unlock the energy in carbon dioxide. If successful, this attempt to replicate photosynthesis could transform CO2 from climate-heating scourge into a limitless source of energy. Synthetic biologists also aim to conjure up self-growing buildings, streetlight-replacing glowing trees, and medicines tailored to your body’s needs. No wonder the market for synbio is expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2019.