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Australia’s synthetic biology opportunity

Dynamic business spoke with Phil Morle, a partner at Venture capital firm, Main Sequence, founded by CSIRO to talk about Australia’s opportunity to be a world leader in the field of synthetic biology.  

Who are you, and what does Main Sequence do?

Phil: “I’m Phil Morle. I’m a partner at Main Sequence, a venture capital firm founded by Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO. 

“Our mission is to turn the great science Australian research organisations produce into globally significant Australian companies. So we’re investing in amazing things which are going to make the world a better place over the decades to come.”

What is synthetic biology? 

Phil: “I’m very excited about synthetic biology. I think it will be a revolution in the next couple of decades because so many streams of technology and science have come together to enable it.

“But the idea behind it is that the more we look at nature, the more we see that nature has solved most of the problems that the world has, and we haven’t necessarily discovered them yet. 

“I’ll give you some examples of that in a minute. But effectively, what synthetic biology does is it builds things with biology. So (synthetic biology) creates things using a biological organism of some kind, such as yeast.” 

Could you give me an example?

Phil: “If we take yeast, for example, yeast in its natural state makes alcohol if you feed it sugar. But actually, you can make a whole bunch of other things with yeast. If you engineer the yeast in the same way, you might engineer a machine of another kind. 

“One example of that is insulin that is used for treating diabetes. Insulin used to have to be harvested from a pig’s pancreas, so you would need to kill 1,000s of pigs to get a litre of insulin to help humans not die from diabetes. 

“But for decades, now, insulin has been brewed just like you make beer. This yeast is the machine, the engine you could say, that produces the insulin.

“We’ve got computational capabilities to work on the molecules and the organisms themselves so that we can start engineering and genetically modifying things if we need to. The technology has come together to enable us to build biological factories to make new things, do it very efficiently, and have the right economics that humans need things to be done. 

“So I’ll give you another example. One of our companies is called Samsara. The machine at the heart of Samsara is an enzyme that evolved in a Japanese rubbish dump, and Samsara’s job is to infinitely recycle the world’s plastic, which has not been done before. 

“What we’ve then done in Samsara using synthetic biology is effectively speed up evolution so that the enzyme works better. Instead of taking 20 years to break down the plastic, it can do it in 10 minutes. Thus creating a whole new way of solving the problem.”

Does synthetic biology have the power to revolutionise the way we produce food? 

Phil: “We have all kinds of problems making food today. We need to double the amount of food we can make to feed the 10 billion inbound people. We’ve literally run out of planet to keep producing in the way we currently do. 

“There’s no more room for more cows; there’s no more room to grow even more crops. So what we need to do is be more efficient with how we produce food.

“Again, in the same way I described the insulin brewing process, we can brew the proteins that go into milk, and we can brew the fats that are in food, and we can make them at a massive scale. 

“They’re exactly the same as the things that would normally be made inside a cow, for example, but made much more efficiently and sustainably in a completely carbon-neutral way. So it’s a very exciting new revolution that many, many things are going to be made from, and I think Australia can be a leader in this revolution.”

How significant is food and material production in creating greenhouse gasses? 

Phil: “It’s enormous. People don’t really understand just what kind of an impact food has on the planet. Most of the land that humans inhabit has been adapted for agricultural use. It involves chopping down trees, which means that the land warms and ceases to sequester carbon. 

“We’ve got cattle which are burping methane whilst they’re eating, which is contributing to global warming. Cattle’s contribution to global warming is significant; it’s up there with the impact of fossil powered cars. But obviously, we have to eat. 

“So we need to find better ways of doing it. If you think about a cow, its process of eating involves eating grass, and then burping it up, and then eating it again, and then burping it up and eating it again. That’s how they digest food, but each of those burps emits methane into the atmosphere.

“Also, to grow a cow, you need to feed it lots and lots of soybeans, for example, as a feedstock. So you need lots of fields to grow the soybeans, even to begin producing the cow. Then you need to keep the cow alive for years for it to grow. 

“If you think about a cow as a biological machine that makes human food. It’s incredibly inefficient. Whereas if we do it with synthetic biology, we can grow it directly. The carbon that may come from sugar or other feedstock is directly transformed by a very efficient machine into food that humans can eat. So it’s a lot more efficient. 

“That way, we can effectively achieve what is a focus of our venture capital fund, making twice as much food but with half the planet that we use today.” 

How did Main Sequence first encounter synthetic biology technology?

Phil: “Well, we have a very privileged position to be in the corridors of CSIRO and the universities of this country as we do our work. It’s been impossible to ignore synthetic biology in that context. 

“It’s a branch of science, which has appeared because other parts of science have come together to make synthetic biology possible. It’s a significant point in history, like when the steam engine came together. All these different elements have come together and allowed us to engineer biology to make new things.

“We’re fortunate because Australia is a world leader in this field. Our scientists have been developing this tech for the last 20 years and have now brought it to maturity. 

“Australia is also very motivated for synthetic biology to become an industry because we have the feedstock. We have one of the biggest sugar harvests on planet Earth, which is all in Queensland. 

“Sugar is an ideal feedstock to feed these organisms, because it’s very rich as a carbon source. You feed this carbon to the organisms that may grow a protein, for example. 

“Because of this, Australian industry as a whole and Australian R&D is excited about prioritising synthetic biology. There’s a lot of activity happening here in Australia. So for our work at Main Sequence, it’s impossible to ignore.”

What does all this mean for Australia?

Phil: “I’ll give you another example, with the dairy industry. We are a tiny producer of milk, we make milk for domestic sale, but we’re not a big global exporter. 

“What got me interested in the company that became Eden Brew in our portfolio was that I did some work with some scientists and said, “Well, out of interest, if we use Australian sugar cane to make milk, how much milk could we make?” The answer that came back was that we could double the world’s milk supply here in Australia alone.

“That’s how big it could be just with dairy. We could theoretically be a global superpower of dairy production. 

Australia’s synthetic biology opportunity
Credit: Eden Brew – Their first Lab-Grown Milk

“Similarly with the Samsara business, and as a solution for breaking down plastic and making it infinitely recyclable, instead of just piling up in our landfill. 

“No one’s done that before. There could be a future, which will sound horrible at first, where the world exports their plastics to Australia. 

“We used to export all of our plastic to Asia and just hope it went away. That’s what recycling was, but now that’s been banned, we have plastic piling up here in Australia. Australia could turn that into super valuable products and get very significant carbon credits for doing that. It could be part of our suite of products and industries that make us a climate superpower. 

“All these things are possible. Our big conversation at Main Sequences is about helping people see this and encouraging the country to lean into it and be a player in this industry because it’s going to happen. It is happening, and it’s a great opportunity for Australia to be a leader and not a net importer of other people’s stuff.”

How can governments help? 

Phil: “Well, there’s one great way which is that the government invested in Main Sequence and encouraged us to get a whole bunch of these things underway. We’re seeing some very exciting state government collaborations to build infrastructure in the states. 

“That’s everything from investing in the research organisations themselves, into their labs and so forth. But also into scaling up capacity so that those lab products can be made at a larger scale. We’re seeing that, in particular, in Queensland. 

“In terms of the federal government, I think the role the federal government can play is encouraging the industry to kind of look at itself afresh and re-architect itself along the way. 

“So rather than protecting traditional, old ways of doing things, we can look at what the new opportunities are for Australian farmers and producers. Australian industry can get involved in new markets to make more money and become more resilient, especially in our climate-challenged world.  

“All those things are happening; it’s an exciting time. The challenge we always have as technologists is to help a whole industry understand what’s possible and see what we can see. So that everyone benefits from the opportunity.”

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Read more: 3D bioprinting tech wins Australian Museum Eureka Prize 2021

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Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck is a Journalist at Dynamic Business. She is a student at the University of Queensland where she studies Journalism and Economics. Heidi has a passion for the stories of small business, as well as the bigger picture of economics.

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