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Can We Engineer Life Itself?

Feb. 29, 2024
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Wiko Steyn
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Wiko Steyn

Synthetic Biology Part 1

 

What would you consider the most embarrassing aspect of our technological capacity in the modern world? It might take you a while to formulate an opinion on this topic, but we can almost guarantee that our pick would not have crossed your mind. Despite the fact that we are able to combine billions of transistors in the space of a R5 coin that allows us to carry these small supercomputers in our pockets, we still dig up dead dinosaurs and burn them in combustion engines to power our infrastructure and transportation. We also rely on complex manufacturing systems to create new drugs, skincare, fertiliser or any other chemical product and in this process, we create far more waste than our planet can sustain. 

What if there was a better way forward? What if we could have a more symbiotic relationship with mother nature? What if we could learn to grow anything?

Synthetic biology might be our best option. It is still very early days and no, we are definitely nowhere near the point where we can bring dinosaurs back to life and create a Jurassic Park. Yet, biotech engineers have been making phenomenal progress in hacking biology and the possibilities are truly endless. From printing food and making cosmetics more bio-friendly to fighting diseases and digital immortality. One thing is for certain, this technology is going to be as controversial as it is powerful in the coming decades.


What is Synthetic Biology?

This is certainly one of the most complex technologies man has ever tried to conquer, so we will only cover the basic concept. Synthetic biology is morphing the world of biology and engineering. This is an emerging field of science where scientists and engineers are combining powers to design, alter and even create new biological compounds. Or in more simple words, they are trying to engineer life itself.  As you can imagine, coding life is not as simple as coding bits on a computer. Right now we are still creating relative simple structures but eventually full organism will be printed in a lab. 


One way to visualise synthetic biology: every living organism has a set of instructions in its DNA that tell it how to get energy, expel waste, and reproduce. Synthetic biology is the modification of these organisms to do something useful like producing a substance such as a medicine or fuel, or gain a new property, like rice which was recently modified to produce beta-carotene which prevents vitamin A deficiency. This is typically done by stitching long pieces of DNA together and then inserting them into an organism's genome. The end goal is to harness the tremendous power of nature, to overcome the obstacles of the modern world like energy, food and medicine.


In Part 2 of this article, we will look at synthetic biology as an investment. Although all of this sounds very exciting, as a business, synthetic biology is notoriously difficult. We will also analyse the three companies we consider leaders in this field, which are included in our Biotech Longshots portfolio.


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