The upcoming IDTechEx Show! in Berlin (11th-12th April) features an array of emerging technologies from 3D printing to sensors used in healthcare. Increasingly we are seeing innovation in the materials used to form these technologies, as industries look beyond chemistry to biology and using cells as factories. Synthetic biology can be thought of as engineering biology; we write code to make a computer program, and now we have the ability to write genetic code to make a biological system. As the cost of synthetic biology decreases, and technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 take-off, industries are looking to replace existing materials with those that have been biomanufactured. These biofabricated materials have the advantage of being ethically sourced, act as alternatives to petrochemical sources and additionally may exhibit new advanced properties.
For example PLA, a biopolymer commonly used in 3D printing, is being produced more efficiently by genetically engineering the enzymes used to make it from plant feedstocks. In an age where plastic pollution has become such a hot issue, non-petrochemical derived plastics are in increasing demand. A new age of biopolymers may also be on the horizon, eliminating the need to use plant feedstocks completely, with biopolymers being made entirely from scratch by cells.
Other forms of biomanufacturing include the biofabrication of materials with advanced properties such as spider silk, which has a higher tensile strength than steel, is durable and lightweight as well as being biocompatible. Spider silk is now being produced on an industrial scale by engineering bacteria or yeast to grow by fermentation, in a similar way to how beer is produced. Spider silk is of interest for implantable sensors in healthcare, automotive parts and apparel to name a few industries.
Away from materials and chemicals we are also seeing disruption to the food and agricultural industries, as animal-based products are being replaced by using synthetic biology. Known as cellular agriculture, this field includes products such as milk and leather made without cows and eggs made without chickens.
The rise of biomanufacturing is resulting in the emergence of new value chains, impacting a wide range of industries. Factors including regulation, scaling and cost need to be understood and addressed by all relevant players in the near future so that the potential of synthetic biology can be realised and the impact on existing business accounted for. To learn more, attend the masterclass on 'Synthetic Biology for Engineering New Materials' on Tuesday 10th April at the IDTechEx Show! in Berlin.