I moderated a panel on disruptive innovaton with, from right to left, Drew Endy of Stanford, Gen9 and IGEM (synthetic biology), Wendy Arienzo, CEO of Array Converter (pioneering a new technique for DC to AC conversion), and Danny Yu, CEO of Daintree Networks (ZigBee light bulbs).
Drew works to make biology ever easier to engineer:
“Our work is a radical departure from the past generation (35 years) of biotechnology which has tended to be overdriven by applications, given that we typically turn to biology as a technology partner of last resort to solve pressing problems (cure this disease, give me a drop in fuel now, etc.). This has resulted in a collective and persistent underinvestment in tools supporting biotechnology. Most practice the details of genetic engineering today no different from how it was done in 1980.
Over the last 10 years we are pioneered the idea of standard biological parts and the use of abstraction for managing biological complexity. Biofab has produced the foundations of the world's first "genome operating system" for E. coli. Basically, we have reduced the error rate of expressing genes in a bacterium by 6-fold (now at ~93.6% reliability). The impact of this advance is that the scale of the system that can be built (before a requirement to test what is happening) increases from 1 gene at a time to ~15 genes at a time. As we push this reliability higher, we eventually enable full forward engineering at the genome scale.
Ten years from now we should have made biology easy to engineer, sufficient to design (not just reconstruct) entire genomes. Everything now made in a plant can be made in yeast. Disruptions to material supply chains all over the place. Reduced energy and environmental loads, left and right.”
He gave the interesting energy-saving example of bio-engineered enzymes for detergents so we can now wash in a cold water cycle.
And for a recent example of computational design of de novo proteins, I mentioned David Baker’s groundbreaking work in designing proteins that target the invariant region of H1N1 and building novel catalytic enzymes (Science May 2011). He used 250,000 computers, but after a few turns of Moore’s Law, that will be commonplace.