Synthetic Biology at Scale

  • Posted on 26 February, 2020

Professor Richard Kitney, Co-founder, SynbiTECH, discusses the industrial scaling problem.

I recently attended the annual Fellows Day at The Royal Academy of Engineering (U.K.’s National Engineering Academy). As always, there were some very interesting exhibits and presentations by Fellows - as well as some mention of the development of industrial sustainability through a low carbon economy. For me, it was interesting to hear and reflect upon these presentations. It is now 11 years since I chaired the Royal Academy’s Inquiry into Synthetic Biology, which resulted in what has become quite an influential report, both in the UK and internationally. Over the weekend I re-read the report and its recommendations.

One of the interesting aspects of the report is that within the working group there was considerable agreement as to how the field might develop from the point of view of research and development. But, even then, there was considerable speculation about how the new products and processes, based on research and development in synthetic biology might be realised industrially. The industrial scaling problem. This continues to be an issue, but I have come to realise that there are examples where, with some modification, it should be possible to alter existing large-scale industrial processes to meet the requirements of synthetic biology based new products.

There are two examples of this, which I would now like to touch upon. The first of these is the development of synthetic spider silk and second the production of new vaccines. So, turning to spider silk first, this is an intriguing area of synthetic biology. By way of background, it has been known for a long time that spider silk (spiders webs) are extremely strong. For example, two types of spiders which are being investigated extensively are the Darwin Spider (first discovered by Charles Darwin on a trip to Madagascar) and the Orb Spider. In simple terms, looking at the mechanical properties of the silk produced by the spiders and turned into thread, the tensile strength of the thread is between 5 to 10 times that of steel and a fraction of the weight. This makes its mechanical properties extremely interesting. There are a number of groups around the world that are now producing synthetic spider silk in the laboratory by, for example, programming strains of yeast to secrete silk in liquid form. However, a key problem is how to produce large quantities of thread of different dimensions?

In relation to scale up, the nylon industry is interesting because with some modification it may be possible to modify the processes involved to allow the scale up of the production of synthetic spider silk threads or yarn. This would allow weaving, possibly on a large scale - with applications in areas such as armour or the production of airframes. If it became possible to produce airframes in this way, the knock-on effect would be very significant. Aircraft would be much lighter and there would be a concomitant reduction in fuel consumption and pollution. Hence, our concern when we wrote the Royal Academy of Engineering Report about how to scale up Industrial processes may, in some cases be overcome by modifying existing processes from different application areas. The second area is about new methods for the production of vaccines. More about this next time.

At SynbiTECH 2020, the production of synthetic spider silk will be addressed by a number of companies working in the field, they will also discuss further applications. Come and join us