Synthetic biology is high on Australia’s critical technology list. Yet one suspects it’s potential is pigeonholed in the medical applications queue while the wider opportunities lie unrecognised.
Granted, mRNA technology did deliver a spectacular success story with 90 per cent effective COVID vaccines within ten months of the WHO announcing the start of the pandemic.
But imagine if the power of synthetic biology was recognised for its full capabilities. The ability to address critical supply chain issues, mitigate climate change, create jobs in regional Australia from agricultural and municipal waste and create a mature 21st century bioeconomy.
That is the opportunity Australia is overlooking.
Take the example of defence alone. Earlier this year the US Airforce, Goodyear and the US$100 billion BioMADE organisation announced they were exploring how to make rubber out of dandelions.
The tyres of the US aircraft are made from rubber grown outside the country. Planes can’t take off and land without tyres and the US wants to mitigate this supply chain risk. Turning dandelions into natural rubber using precision fermentation will solve this problem.
Australia has the same opportunity because the country’s scientific talent is mature. The Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (CoESB), headquartered at Macquarie University, brings together scientists who have worked on synthetic biology for more than 15 years.
The Centre includes prominent groups at Macquarie University, Queensland University, the University of Western Australia, Queensland University of Technology and the CSIRO.
What is this new industrial biotechnology?
Essentially, all these groups are building on old technology. Humans have long taken advantage of natural fermentation processes to develop many products, such as wine, beer and cheese. Microbes are the world’s most brilliant chemists, able to turn simple sugars and other compounds into a vast array of complex chemicals.
Nowadays, synthetic biologists are uncovering not just how these processes work, but how to modify them to get microbes to produce chemicals that no natural microbe makes. This opens up a virtually infinite array of possibilities that have the potential to save our environment and millions of lives.
As the recent CSIRO roadmap for sustainable aviation fuel notes, all of the agricultural waste Australia currently burns each year could be transformed into fuel, hydrogen, fertiliser or plastic.
Today’s carbon waste streams are tomorrow’s advanced manufacturing feedstocks.
Current and emerging opportunities
Right now, the Mackay Biorefinery in Queensland is being upgraded to become a pilot plant for scaling products developed by a growing suite of startup companies spun out from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (CoESB) – six in three years.
Both Cauldron and the Hunter Biorefinery are in the process of adding to this infrastructure across the Australian eastern seaboard. A new precision fermentation architecture is in development, a process that uses microbial hosts as ‘cell factories’ for producing specific functional ingredients.
There is growing domestic and international interest in investing in Australian synthetic biology startups, with Main Sequence Ventures being one of the major backers.
An ecosystem is emerging, whereby the CoESB does the basic research, spin-out companies prove the technology at lab scale at the Australian Genome Foundry, before moving to Cauldron or Mackay for upscaling to pilot scale, then Series A money is raised to move into full production.
Some spinouts have moved into full production. The Centre’s spinout company, Samsara Eco, is preparing to start production in Melbourne with its technology to infinitely recycle PET plastic using engineered enzymes.
Moving closer to that goal is Number 8 Bio, another spinout, which engineers organisms as cattle feed to significantly reduce methane emissions from cattle and improve animal productivity.
Companies such as All G Foods, Nourish Ingredients, Loam Bio and Vow are other exciting new players in the synthetic biology space.
The Centre has its sights set on the opportunities of biomanufacturing, and the research program required for building platform capabilities in the area.
For example, it is engineering an entirely new yeast chromosome with genes from different organisms that would enable yeast to produce oils for human consumption.
This would mean that oils such as palm oil, which results in massive deforestation of tropical rainforests, could instead be made in a more environmentally sustainable manner by yeast fermentation – analogous to how we currently make beer and wine.
But more pilot-scale fermentation infrastructure is needed, and urgently. This is not just an Australian issue. The synthetic biology startup scene faces fermentation infrastructure bottlenecks worldwide.
These facilities need to be regionally co-located with target feedstocks. We need to do this in a sustainable way without cannabilising agricultural produce and causing market distortion.
For instance, unsold Queensland molasses is relied on for keeping livestock alive during droughts. Any precision fermentation facility that uses Queensland molasses would need to be designed with this traditional use case in mind.
There is an urgent need to de-risk investment into the Australian bioeconomy. It is the number one issue facing synthetic biology startups right now. An ARENA-style investment vehicle is needed to jumpstart the Australian bioeconomy and the National Reconstruction Fund has a clear role to play.
Techno-geopolitics heats up
Meanwhile, the United States under the Biden Administration has announced its visionary Bold Goals for US Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing and China announced redoubled research investment and structural reform at the Two Sessions meeting earlier in the year.
Why? Because both countries see the advantages of onshoring advanced manufacturing supply chains through a “grow-it-at home” strategy.
A common refrain among policymakers in Australia is that the vast scaling-up of US investment into the bioeconomy is going to lead to a brain drain from Australia.
Yet year-on-year, the Centre of Excellence sees more US researchers coming to Australia than Australian researchers going to the US. But we still can’t backfill the growing cohort of scientists foregoing university employment to lead startup companies.
A way forward
Australia has sunlight, brackish water and carbon waste streams in abundance. Countries such as Japan look enviously upon us. Australia has all of Asia on our doorstep, we have existing port facilities currently servicing liquid natural gas and a world-leading scientific workforce.
All of the ingredients exist for Australia to become one of the leading producers and exporters in the global bioeconomy across a diverse range of sustainably produced liquefied chemicals.
In a carbon constrained world, reducing the carbon-cost for feedstock logistics is essential. The result could revitalise the regions of Australia with advanced infrastructure that runs on agri-waste, municipal waste, and point-based carbon sources such as coal-fired power plants, LNG processing facilities and smelters.
This will create new advanced manufacturing jobs for Australians in the regions, and these new jobs will rely on Australian farmers and Australian industry for Australian inputs.
As is seen in the Victorian Gippsland areas, there is an abundance of regional towns in transition that could piggyback on an Australian strategy for growing our bioeconomy through biomanufacturing specialisation.
The opportunity is vast. If Australia doesn’t move soon, we could miss the biggest economic windfall of this century.
The only limit is our imagination and our ability to grab this opportunity with both hands. It’s time to embrace the bioeconomy.
Professor Sakkie Pretorius is internationally recognised as a pioneer in molecular microbiology, biotechnology and translating research outcomes into innovative industry applications. He joined Macquarie University in 2013 as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), brought the Yeast 2.0 Project to Macquarie University in 2014, and has won more than $120 million in research funding and filed six patents.
Distinguished Professor Ian Paulsen is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology and the Australian Genome Foundry. He is a former ARC Laureate Fellow, an ISI Highly Cited Researcher, and Thomson and Reuters have identified him as one of the world’s 3,000 most influential scientific minds.
Thom Dixon is a PhD candidate with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology and the School of Social Sciences at Macquarie University. He is the Manager, National Security and Defence at Macquarie University, and the Vice President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.
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