Biofab is an odd name for synthetic biologist Drew Endy's latest project. Unlike the semiconductor fabs it borrows the name from, the biofab that will be set up in the San Francisco Bay area will not actually make anything. At least, nothing physical.
There is a further potential for problems in that the word 'biofab' is also a trademark of Codon Devices, which synthesises DNA for bioengineers and, so really does have a fab - DNA production plants are surprisingly big places given they make tiny quantities of the chemical.
But 'biofab' will probably stick as the community around synthetic biology has already picked up on the term and is keen to see it happen. The official name is a lot less catchy: Joint Center for the Production and Standardisation of Biological Parts and Devices.
Under the plan, six universities and one government lab will set up a non-profit centre to catalogue, test and organise genetic components - pieces of DNA used in synthetic biology. The idea is to plug a gap that has appeared since the BioBricks Foundation set up its registry of parts. The BioBricks parts registry is volunteer driven and is frankly, a bit patchy. Some of the components are used heavily and so are pretty well documented. Others are barely documented at all and some, according to an analysis by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute don't seem to be quite what the label says on the tin.
Endy sees the current situation as holding back synthetic biology work. Industrial users do not use the BioBricks parts: they tend to make their own.
In his presentation at SB 4.0, Endy cited Amyris Biotechnologies as an example, which has to date raised more than $110m in venture funding to re-engineer yeasts to produce a range of biofuels. “This is a huge success and should be celebrated. [But] you have experts spending a tremendous amount of time getting it to work. One of the questions we face in synthetic biology is, since we are 35 years, if not more, into this technology how do we go from a project that costs more than $100m and make it a $10m project? A $1m project? A $10,000 project? A project you might lay out on a workstation and then have it actually go?” Endy asked.
The biofab is not the complete answer but could cut some of the costs. The biofab will take components from open-source libraries such as the BioBricks registry, as well as other sources, and put together the documentation that should let researchers work out very quickly whether the DNA will work in their system. This should encourage users to license in components instead of trying to do most of the work from scratch. The biofab, despite its name, won't actually supply the DNA: the gene synthesis companies such as Blue Heron and Codon can do that.
To get its work done, the biofab will need a staff, probably of about 30 people, and funding. Right now, the options for funding are all pretty much open: a public-private partnership; entirely publicly financed; or philanthropy.
The idea of a biofab has picked up support from industry and from the people who would fund the next generation of synthetic-biology startups.
Musea Ventures general partner Talli Somekh said at the conference: “Something that Drew has convinced me of is in trying to create a biofab in the Bay Area. One thing that shocked me was how primitive the tools were.”
Zach Serber of Amyris agreed: “I think the biofab is a great idea. Amyris is already engaged in a biofab-like process, so we clearly see that it has value.”