“What if we could code in the language of biology?” asked Jason Kakoyiannis of biotech company Ginkgo. Spoiler alert: he already can.
In his talk, Kakoyiannis shared a glimpse into advancements in the biotech field, including how Ginkgo is extracting DNA from plants that have been extinct for 200 years to create new fragrances.
“Biology is a software program that’s taken over,” he said. “If you can read in a language and you can write in a language, you can effectively code and design in that language.” And that’s just what Ginkgo is doing.
At 10 years old, the firm now employs 180 people and has created a foundry — a stack of software wrapped around automation and robotics that allows the employees to do bio experiments. Ginkgo releases a new version of its foundry ever year, similar to the way Microsoft updates its operating system every few years.
Kakoyiannis proceeded to share how Ginkgo is applying its technology to plant extracts. After realizing that specialty ingredients are heavily impacted by the agricultural cycle, the team attempted to find a way to bypass that cycle. So they started programming microbes that are able to produce the same compounds as plants — but more efficiently.
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“If you bypass agriculture, you’ve got an opportunity to achieve a much lower cost, but also dramatically more specificity,” Kakoyiannis said. “With a plant extract, you often get a soup of molecules, maybe only a small percentage contribute to the function you want.”
The team coded organisms to produce the specialty compounds in such a way that the rules of agriculture no longer applied. The fermentation process, they found, could be done on a much larger scale and in a shorter amount of time — a few days, even.
Ginkgo is currently applying its technology to create scents using extinct flowers. The company was able to access 14 plants that had gone extinct in the last 200 years and began sampling the tissue. It proceeded to sequence the DNA, sent the sequences to a DNA printer and received a liquid vial in return. The company then transformed the DNA into microbes, which grew up the aroma compounds of flowers and were eventually composed into fragrance.
Though the presentation focused mainly on the implications for fragrance, the technology can be applied to skin care, nutrition, cosmetics and more. It challenges traditional notions about self-care regimens, forcing people to think more critically about ingredients and the effects they have on our skin and bodies.
In closing, Kakoyiannis left the audience with one final question: “What is your bio strategy?”