Basque designer Jean Louis Iratzoki has moulded the shell of a chair from a plant-based polymer that is fully recyclable and biodegradable
"There are two things happening right now that have transformed biotechnology," says Raymond McCauley, bioinformatics expert at Singula in California, whose job is to nurture ideas and mentor bio-startups. The first, he says, is the digitisation of biology -- gathering data, examining how human systems work and testing drugs can all be done in a computer. The other is the democratisation of the tools. "Hackers are taking $3.5 million [£2.2 million] DNA sequencers and building the same thing for 1/10,000 of the price," he says. "What was an infant science a few years ago can now be a commercial venture." McCauley gives Wired six examples of future biotech products.
Missouri-based startup Modern Meadow has devised a method to make leather from bacteria. "Next year's fashion accessory could be vat-grown shoes," says McCauley, who works with the startupat Singularity University. Using insights from medical tissue engineering and stem-cell research, CEO Andras Forgacs is applying the same slaughter-free techniques to growing meat products.
Electric DNA control
Evolutionary Solutions, a Mountain View startup, can make custom DNA on demand. Traditional methods to synthesise DNA are extremely expensive, prone to high error rates and take a long time to do. Instead, the startup has developed a technology that uses an electric field to control a DNA-producing protein, to make sure the DNA sequence produced is error-free and fast.
Canadian fruit producer Okanagan Specialty Fruits makes Arctic apples: fruit that has gone through a process called gene silencing, which prevents them from going brown when sliced or bitten. "They're just turning the dial down on a gene, rather then adding in foreign genes and turning it into a Frankenfood," says McCauley. The apples will still rot, but not for a few days.
Mining the microbiome
San Francisco firm Second Genome wants to sequence our microbiome. These trillions of organisms are, says McCauley, "inside and on top of humans," and are needed to digest food, prevent disease-causing bacteria in the body, and synthesise nutrients. Second Genome's business model is based on trying to figure out how the data can be useful to doctors and whether it could influence drug design.
23ansMe started the trend of individual DNA testing in 2006, but several startups are taking this further. StationX has a software system that will sequence tumour DNA from cancer patients, then provides data analysis to tell them whether a specific drug or treatment will work. DNA Nexus, meanwhile, is building software to upload genetic infrastructure into the cloud, so genomic data and tools can be instantly shared.
Cambrian Genomics custom-prints genes using lasers. "A hundred million base pairs of DNA made by the old methods would cost $100 million. We can make it for $37,000," says Austen Heinz, cofounder and CEO of the San Francisco-based startup. Clients include the US military, which wants DNA to create new types of biomaterials, and synthetic-biology startup Universal Bio Mining, to make microbes for Nasa Mars missions.
Written by Madhumita Venkataramanan