For centuries, humans have used yeast to make beer and bread. Now, a startup is using it to engineer designer fragrances, cosmetics, pesticides, and biofuels.
A self-described "organism design firm," Boston's Ginkgo Bioworks is one of several companies in the emerging field known as synthetic biology. That's a loose term for a collection of genetic-engineering techniques that alter the DNA of existing organisms to create new ones from scratch.
In Gingko's case, this means genetically modifying yeast to enhance consumer products for clients that include Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. A French fragrance maker has even ordered an exclusive rose-scented perfume based on a unique combination of genes from roses and other flowers.
"In biotech, a lot of the focus has been on learning more and more about biology," co-founder Jason Kelly told BuzzFeed News. "At Gingko we're not studying biology, we're designing it."
On Wednesday, Ginkgo announced it had raised $9 million to ramp up production in its new, 18,000-square-foot space in Boston, where an army of automated robotics puts together the organisms.
Founded in 2008 by former MIT computer scientist Tom Kelly and three other MIT biological-engineering graduates, Gingko was the first biotech company backed by Y Combinator, the buzzy Silicon Valley incubator behind companies like Airbnb and Dropbox. Additional venture backers include OS Fund, Data Collective, Felicis Ventures, iGlobe Partners, and Vast Ventures.
Ginkgo's process begins when a client wants to tweak an existing product — like emphasize a certain note in a scent and downplay another. Ginkgo engineers then figure out which genes in the original product are likely to produce the desired results when changed.
After devising a genetic sequence that includes those changes, the company buys DNA fragments from outside suppliers. Its robots stitch those genes together into the much longer, desired sequence, and the experimentation continues.
Ginkgo ultimately transfers these genes into yeast and sells the yeast to clients, who use it to make their products the same way breweries brew beer. During the fermentation process, yeast microbes eat and convert sugar to alcohol. The difference is that Ginkgo's yeast doesn't make booze, but rose oil — or many other products: It says it has contracts to create 20 customized microbes.
The company hasn't revealed the details for most of them, but they include flavors and fragrances that evoke peaches, grapes, mushrooms, and fresh-cut grass; sweeteners for a major beverage company; and a "natural pesticide" for agriculture. With funding from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Ginkgo is also engineering probiotic bacteria to treat antibiotic-resistant germs. The startup receives royalty fees when its yeast is used in sold products.
Other synthetic-biology companies include Swiss-based Evolva, whose fermentation-derived vanillin — an alternative to artificial vanilla flavor — has been rolling out in food products sold in the U.S.
But these kinds of products draw concerns, largely from critics who also oppose the use of genetically modified organisms. Laws regulating the use and labeling of genetically modified organisms don't apply to fermented ingredients, because the organisms used to make them aren't in the final products.
"The food and cosmetics industry are the front line for synthetic biology ingredients, and products like rose oil are rapidly entering the market without understanding what the environmental impacts could be," said Dana Perls, who tracks food and technology issues for the advocacy group Friends of the Earth.
Perls worries that a reliance on fermentation could, for example, increase demand for sugar, which could strain agricultural production. Synthetic products could also displace laborers who grow the natural equivalents for a living, she said.
But proponents of synthetic biology say the technology has the potential to produce scarce, expensive and much-needed natural resources, if companies like Ginkgo can get it down to a science.
"If I program a website, my website's going to render every single time," Bryan Johnson, founder of the OS Fund, told BuzzFeed News. "We aren't there yet with biology — I can't just sit down and program biological code to create a particular outcome on a more complex scale. In my estimation, biology is the largest most significant code base we have in humanity. What's standing between us making us good use of that is our ability to make it predictable."