Manufacturers’ Monthly speaks with CSIRO’s Land and Water Science Director, Dr Paul Bertsch, about the potential of synthetic biology and how it is expected to transform advanced biomanufacturing in Australia by the year 2040.
Synthetic biology-enabled innovations in advanced biomanufacturing have been decades in the making, and Australia has been identified by leading biomanufacturers as prime location for biomanufacturing with ready access to emerging markets.
A new report by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, A National Synthetic Biology Roadmap: Identifying commercial and economic opportunities for Australia, concludes that synthetic biology-enabled advanced manufacturing provides Australia a $27 billion opportunity with more than 40,000 new jobs by 2040. The two biggest areas to benefit from synthetic biology are the food and agriculture (up to $19 billion) and health and medicine sectors (up to $7 billion).
Australia has invested at least $80 million in developing synthetic biology research capabilities in recent years.
CSIRO has focused on developing capacity in synthetic biology through its Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform including through a new CSIRO BioFoundry facility in Queensland, which provides a capability to the research and development community to rapidly design, build, and test new engineered genetic components and organisms.
MM: Could you please give a broad picture of what the National Synthetic Biology Roadmap means for Australian manufacturing, and what it is predicted to deliver for the country in 20 years’ time?
Paul: Advanced biomanufacturing will be fuelled by synthetic biology, which is one of the most rapidly growing areas of modern science. It only began to accelerate around 2008, mainly due to computational advancements. The idea is to use engineering principles to engineer biology from standardised genetic circuits for specific outcomes. Most of those outcomes materialise in the advanced bio-manufacturing space. We’re producing commodities such as proteins for food alternatives, or fibres for alternate fabrics. Synthetic biology involves engineering standardised genetic parts, assembling these standard genetic circuits and metabolic pathways, and introducing them into single cell organisms to produce cell factories which can manufacture products in large quantities.
MM: What is the current market for synthetic biology in Australia? Can you talk a little bit about the history behind this capability?
Paul: In 2015, CSIRO initiated the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (SynBio FSP) with the aim of building national capability and a national community of practice, as well as guiding national coherence around a synthetic biology strategy. At the time there were few self-identified synthetic biologists in Australia, the institutional awareness of field was limited, and there was no coordinated national dialogue.
The SynBio FSP has involved more than 250 collaborators with 24 Australian and 17 international partners and has now trained about 100 post doc fellows. You may know there was a 2018 Horizon Scanning report released by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) that was co-funded by CSIRO which provided an outlook around synthetic biology to 2030. The FSP has an external advisory panel made up of some of the top experts in synthetic biology globally. Last year, they evaluated the progress of the FSP and reported that the SynBio FSP has been extremely successful in establishing a strong CSIRO and wider Australian community of synthetic biologists. Further, they concluded that “it is clear that the Synthetic Biology FSP provides a conduit for international collaborations and awareness of synthetic biology activities in Australia…” “… Without this program, Australia would likely be falling behind in its biological research capability. The project is better coordinated than those in most other countries.”
A few weeks back, CSIRO published Australia’s Synthetic Biology Roadmap. The roadmap provides a commercially-focused strategic view of how synthetic biology could underpin a thriving Australian bioeconomy worth up to $27 billion by 2040.
I have to say that historically, we have under-predicted growth in this area. For example, several years ago the discussion around alternative protein meats predicted that its growth and market share would be marginal. That sector has grown much faster than even many of the most optimistic predictions. So, many of the sceptics have turned into believers because of how rapidly that market is growing and the stronger than expected social acceptance of the products.
Not all of the alternate protein meats are produced from precision fermentation or synthetic biology, but an example of an alternate meat company that uses synthetic biology is Impossible Foods. The Impossible burger is differentiated from other plant-based protein meat alternatives by the ingredient, leghaemoglobin, which is a plant-based haemoglobin protein, a very similar protein to what is found in animal blood, which gives it the distinct red colour. Food scientists have determined that haemoglobin provides animal meat with hundreds of flavours and aromas that we associate with meat. Impossible engineered the genetic components that produce leghaemoglobin in soybean and inserted them in yeast and produced the leghaemoglobin through fermentation. The synthetic biology production platform is critical, since leghaemoglobin is produced in very minute quantities in soybean in small root nodules that harbour nitrogen fixing bacteria, and thus, could not be recovered in quantities required to add to the alternate meats.
There are a number of companies that are producing natural products using synthetic biology production platforms that could not be economically extracted from plants or other organisms.
MM: Mentioned quite prominently in the report is the export potential that is expected to reach $430 billion by 2040. Is that mostly going to come from our primary industries, like agriculture and food?
Paul: The roadmap concludes that Australia’s greatest opportunities are in the food and agriculture area, representing a $19.2B opportunity by 2040, but health and medicine is identified to be another one, representing a $7.2B growth opportunity. The health and medicine applications are focussed on biomanufacturing of pharmaceutical ingredients and precursors, nutraceuticals, the production of biosensors for diagnostics and theragnostics, and engineered cell-based therapies and vaccines.
An example is engineered yeast that was developed by a research team from MIT and Harvard that senses intestinal inflammation and, when detected, secretes an anti-inflammatory molecule. Another research frontier in health and medicine involves interdisciplinary expertise, such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology. There is a team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre which has developed nanomaterials with specific receptors for T-cells, which are immune cells. The nanomaterials carry DNA cargo to reprogram the T-cells in vivo so that the T-cells can recognise and specifically bind to and attack cancer cells. Current methods of CAR-T-cell therapies require extracting a patient’s T-cells, engineering them to recognise and attack cancer cells, growing them up in a bioreactor and re-introducing them to the patient. However, this breakthrough in vivo approach is initiated with an injection of the engineered nanomaterials.
These kinds of breakthroughs will be accelerated in the next 5 to 10 years and Australia is in a really good position to be a leader in many of these areas.
MM: What potential markets have been identified in Australia?
Paul: While the markets in Australia will align with the areas outlined earlier, the major opportunities for Australia in synthetic biology-enabled advanced biomanufacturing is in emerging markets in Asia and the subcontinent. Australia’s advantages include the availability of sugar and other agricultural products required as an input for many synthetic biology production platforms, outstanding port infrastructure that already services the emerging markets, free trade agreements with many Asian countries, our legal systems and strong IP protection, the R&D tax credit, and the lifestyle that will attract skilled workers.
I spent 18 months as Interim Queensland Chief Scientist and worked closely with Trade Investment Queensland to visit and interact with synthetic biology companies in the San Francisco Bay area to sell Australia’s value proposition. Many of those companies are interested in setting up production facilities here now because of these factors. In addition to the factors I just mentioned, the Australian brand will also resonate in the emerging markets for products such as alternative protein meats.
Another good example is a company in the United States called Perfect Day which produces dairy products. They’ve engineered fungi to make the same proteins found in cow’s milk, which they formulate with plant-based Omega-3-rich lipids to make lactose free vegan ice cream, milk, and cheese. There’s a new start-up out of CSIRO called Eden Brew, which is doing the same thing. Many of these companies are now using AI to examine the properties of proteins and select the proteins based on properties such as texture and flavour, and also to eliminate proteins with known allergenic properties. So why raise a cow to produce milk if you can just ferment it?
MM: What does that now mean for Australian manufacturing?
Paul: Synthetic biology-enabled platforms for the production of food, fibre, advanced materials, fine chemicals, and health and medical products, which have a significantly reduced environmental footprint and significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions will continue to proliferate over the next decade as the global community transitions away from fossil fuels.
It has also been demonstrated that there is a significant global shortage of fermentation capacity to service the existing companies that are in various phases of scale-up. This is a tremendous opportunity for Australia, to not only grow this capacity, but to also innovate around bioproduction facilities that allow for the co-optimisation of biology and the bioproduction platforms, be it fermenters, bioreactors for cell cultures, or novel bioreactors for engineered chemoautotrophs.
As I mentioned, Australia is well positioned to become a major producer for the emerging markets where the Australian brand is highly trusted and equated with outstanding quality. These opportunities are emerging very quickly and we must seize the opportunity now to realise the economic, social, and environmental benefits that these opportunities are presenting.