ing some 50,000 genes annually.4 Biological products have become economically important. In 2010, it is estimated that the bioeconomy in the United States (genetically modified crops, biological products, and industrial biotechnology) generated more than $300 billion in revenue (the equivalent of over 2 percent of
The commercialization of synthetic biology products is in its very early stages, but both investors and entrepreneurs are exploring opportunities. Amyris, Inc. is using synthetic biology to produce products on a commercial scale. In Shanghai, Lishan Zhao, Head of Enzymology and Protein Engineering, Amyris, Inc., described his company’s work with yeast cells engineered for novel functions. One application is to produce a semi-synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical traditionally derived from the Chinese wormwood plant. Artemisinin is used in anti-malarial drugs, but the chemical is difficult and expensive to extract. By engineering yeast to produce artemisinin—a process developed by Amyris’ co-founder, Jay Keasling—Amyris worked to provide a steady, non-seasonal, and affordable supply of artemisinin for use in developing countries. In partnership with the nonprofit organization OneWorldHealth and with a $42.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Amyris developed the ability to produce artemisinin at a scale suitable for global distribution. Production was managed by the French pharmaceutical Sanofi. Sanofi announced in April 2013 that it has begun large-scale commercialization of artemisinin using a process that is based on the process developed at Amyris. The drug will be sold at cost.a
Amyris has also explored yeast-based production of farnesene, an aromatic oil used in fuels, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and fragrances. Production, however, has been inadequate to justify a planned venture into biofuels.b Nevertheless, Amyris views synthetic biology as viable technology that offers solutions to global challenges. Recently, for example, the company announced a multi-year agreement with the global company International Flavors & Frangrances, Inc. to develop renewable fragrance ingredients using a synthetic biology platform.c “I strongly believe that if we all work together, we can pave the road for synthetic biology to play an important role in replacing petroleum one day,” Zhao said.
aUC Berkeley News Center, 2013. “Launch of Antimalarial Drug a Triumph for UC Berkeley, Synthetic Biology,” April 11. Online at http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/04/11/launch-of-antimalarial-drug-a-triumph-for-uc-berkeley-synthetic-biology, accessed May 17, 2013.
bBullis, Kevin, 2012. “Amyris Gives Up Making Biofuels: Update,” MIT Technology Review. February 10. Online at http://www.technologyreview.com/view/426866/amyris-gives-up-making-biofuels-update, accessed March 27, 2013.
4 Maurer, Stephen M. et al., 2009, “Making Commercial Biology Safer: What the Gene Synthesis Industry Has Learned About Screening Customers and Orders,” Working Paper, online at http://gspp.berkeley.edu/iths/Maurer_IASB_Screening.pdf.