Robot Factories for Synthetic Biology

Eliza Strickland reports in IEEE Spectrum about Ginkgo Bioworks, a company that has built highly automated “foundries” for “organism engineering”. The idea is to automate the creation of custom microbes to generate useful products (chemicals).

The use of genetically modifies microbes is scarcely new, but these guys are deploying robots, data, and computing to speed up the trial and error process, and to move rapidly to industrial scale production of successful trials.

Thinking about it, I’m astonished that this hasn’t happened much sooner than now. It’s a pretty obvious that “synthetic biology” can and will be implemented by increasingly automated factories. I’m not taking anything away from the work these guys have done, it looks like they have done a nice job of integrating these processes, and making them easy to track and control. That was not trivial. It’s just such an obviously great idea, you’d think everyone would be doing it.

I must say that the whole thing sounds quite “fast and out of control” to me. Considering that 100% of their business is based on genetically modified organisms, and their system is just this side of autonomous, you have to think about what could possibly go wrong, and when we would know about it.

(By the way, I certainly hope they take extreme care to secure their “foundry” systems from network hacking. It would be bad to have intruders secretly manipulate the output of these biofactories….)

These guys are serious, and I’m sure they are pretty safe (if not necessarily in control). If you want to wring your hands about something, consider that much of this technology is available for home hobbyists.  A “DNA Playground”?  Equivalent to a “Shake-n-bake oven?” What could possibly go wrong?

While doing synthetic biology is not trivial, there are more and more automated systems that put it within the reach of you and me.

O brave new world. that has such creatures we put in’t!

  1. Eliza Strickland, The Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology: Automation allows thousands of possibilities when building weird new organisms, in IEEE Spectrum. 2016.
  2. Eliza Strickland, Tools for Would-Be Biohackers: Here Come 3 Mini-Labs, in IEEE Spectrum. 2016.


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