The Intersection of Biofuels and Synthetic Biology

New players are appearing every day in the rush to production biofuels using synthetic biology.  I just noticed an announcement that Codon Devices has signed an agreement with Agrivida for:

The discovery, development, and commercialization of engineeredproteins for use in so-called 'third generation' biofuel applications. Under the terms of this agreement, Codon Devices will deliver to Agrivida optimized enzymes to be embedded in crops for biofuels production.

...Agrivida, an agricultural biotechnology company, is developing such third generation biofuels by creating corn varieties optimized for producing ethanol. First generation methods for manufacturing ethanol make use of the corn grain only, leaving the remaining plant material, such as the corn leaves, stalks, and husks in the field. Central to Agrivida’s ethanol-optimized corn technology are engineered cellulase enzymes that are incorporated into the corn plants themselves. These enzymes will efficiently degrage the entire mass of plant material into small sugars that can then be readily converted to ethanol.

The step of putting some of the biofuel processing into crops was inevitable, but I can't say I am particularly thrilled about it.  I am not opposed to the principle of open planting of GM crops, but, because many GM plants do not behave as predicted once placed in a complex ecosystem (i.e., nature), I wonder if  we shouldn't be more circumspect about this particular engineering advance.

In other interesting developments at Codon, they also recently announced a deal with Open Biosystems wherein the latter will:

Sell and distribute Codon Devices’ gene synthesis offering to researchers with needs that fall below Codon’s minimum order threshold.  The partnership will enable a wide range of new customers to utilize high-quality, low-cost gene synthesis in their research, and will greatly strengthen Codon Devices’ presence within academic, government and other non-profit institutions.

I also notice Codon is now advertising gene synthesis for $.69 per base for constructs between 50 and 2000 bases in length, with "typical delivery" in 10-15 days.  2001-5000 bases will cost you $.84 per base and 15-20 days.  Last year at SB 2.0, Brian Baynes suggested they would be at about $.50 per base within a year, so costs continue to fall pretty much apace.  But delivery times are staying above two weeks, and this is now becoming a problem for some of Codon's customers.  I am not at liberty to divulge names, but some synthetic biology companies that rely on outside gene synthesis are starting to chafe at having to wait two weeks before trying out new designs.  This is something we predicted would happen in the "Genome Synthesis and Design Futures" report from Bio-era, though I am a bit surprised it is happening so soon.  This may be another indication of how quickly SB is becoming an important technology in the economy.  Engineers trying to turn around products aren't satisfied with the NIH/academic model of trading off time for money -- the market, to first order, only cares about products that are actually for sale, which means those that make it through R&D quickly and generate revenues in what will become an increasingly crowded field.

Concerns about delays in the R&D cycle due to outsourced gene delivery are also becoming confounded by IP issues.  Personally, I am certainly not thrilled about sending my protein designs around via email, and I know of another SB company (which again I am not at liberty to name) that is becoming less and less comfortable with sending sequences for new genetic circuits out the door in electronic form.  This can only be exacerbated by the deal Codon Devices has just signed with Agrivida, an explicit competitor to anybody trying to produce anything in hacked/engineered organisms.  A couple of months ago, I had a conversation with Brian Baynes (which I will post here sometime soon) in which he outlined Codon's plans for participating in markets beyond gene synthesis.  I suspect Codon Devices will have to start paying more and more attention to conflict of interest issues generated by its simultaneous role as a fabrication house and provider of design services.

I'll argue again that the two trends of IP concerns and R&D time scales will drive the emergence of a market in desktop gene synthesis machines, whether you call them "desktop gene printers" or  something else.  This weekend at SciFoo, Drew Endy suggested such instruments are a long ways off.  Drew has been paying more attention to the specific engineering details of this than I have, if for no other reason that his involvement in Codon, but, in addition to my own work, I think that there are enough technological bits and pieces already demonstrated in the literature that we could see a desktop instrument sooner rather than later; that is, if a market truly exists.