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DNA makers thrive alongside synbio customers

Synbio companies demand new tools as they start making real products

by Matt Blois
April 14, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 13


Two scientists in white suits look at a black silicon chip used to synthesize DNA.
Credit: Twist Bioscience
Twist Bioscience says it has one of the world's largest DNA supply agreements with Ginkgo Bioworks.

Several companies that produce DNA announced technology improvements and operational expansions at the Built with Biology conference earlier this month. Much of that progress is fueled by the growth of synthetic biology customers that insert DNA into organisms to produce fuels, drugs, and a host of other chemicals.

In early April, DNA maker Twist Bioscience extended its partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks in a deal the companies call one of the world’s largest DNA supply agreements. Twist expects synthetic biology companies to account for more than 36% of revenues in its current fiscal year. The firm noted in its most recent quarterly report that its profits depend “heavily” on new products from the synbio industry.

Synthetic biology is on a roll—good news for DNA makers like Twist. A recent report from Built with Biology, an industry group, estimated that synbio start-ups received almost $18 billion in investment last year, the biggest number the group has recorded since it started tracking investments in 2009.

Mark Bünger, an analyst with Futurity Systems who worked on the report, says advances in DNA synthesis and other tools have allowed synbio companies to make progress faster. “As you get better tools for analysis and synthesis, you can do more experiments more quickly,” he says. “You can find answers more quickly. And you can scale up processes more quickly.”

We can make replacements for foie gras. We can make replacements for petroleum. . . . It isn’t just about tools to make synthetic biology better.
Mark Bünger, analyst, Futurity Systems

That growth has opened up opportunities for DNA companies besides Twist. In March, Molecular Assemblies closed a $26 million round of financing for its enzymatic DNA synthesis process, which promises to accurately produce long strands of DNA. The company says its partner, Codexis, helped make its key enzyme work faster and more accurately. And Ansa Biotechnologies announced as the conference started that it has raised $68 million to launch a DNA production service using enzymatic synthesis.

Meanwhile, DNA Script plans to start distributing its benchtop DNA printer, which uses enzymatic synthesis, to labs in Asia. The firm cites increasing demand for synthetic biology tools. Evonetix is developing a benchtop DNA printer that uses chemical synthesis. The company was recently granted a patent for its process, which uses heat rather than acid to add nucleotides to DNA sequences.

In addition to serving scientists working at the lab scale, DNA makers say they can use DNA to store digital information. At the conference, GenScript introduced a high-throughput iteration of its DNA synthesis technology designed for data storage.

Bünger says synthetic biology is following the same path as computers. The early days were all about tools to make the technology work well. Those tools then allowed companies to make products that had a big impact on society. That’s where synthetic biology is heading, he says.

“We can make replacements for foie gras. We can make replacements for petroleum,” he says. “There’s a product all of a sudden. It isn’t just about tools to make synthetic biology better.”



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