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Rewriting Life

Bio Programming

Juan Enriquez’s company creates new organisms.

The next step after reading genetic code is writing it. In June, biotech pioneers J. Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith launched Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville, MD-based “synthetic biology” startup aimed at creating custom-made micro-organisms. The new company’s president is Juan Enriquez, former director of Harvard Business School’s Life Sciences Project and CEO of the Wellesley, MA, investment partnership Biotechonomy, which funds Synthetic Genomics.

How is what you’re doing different from conventional genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering mostly has been about taking a few genes, shooting them at random at cells, and seeing if anything sticks. What we’re doing is very different – synthesizing entirely new DNA strands with the aim of controlling a particular life function. We then insert those into cells and have them execute that function.

What kinds of functions?
We’ve made a decision to focus on big problems with global impact, initially energy and global warming. Specifically, we’re looking at how to optimize microorganisms that generate ethanol and hydrogen. But there’s potential application for any carbon-based industry, including chemicals, carbon sequestration, and pollution remediation. To the extent that you can program how individual cells function, you can change global industries on a very large scale.

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Even so, critics will take one look and say, “Frankencells!”
We’re working to look at the ethical issues. You don’t want to put something on the market and then have people start asking all these questions. One way of looking at this is it’s the next stage in the Green Revolution. Or alternatively it’s the next stage of the Industrial Revolution. I think it’s both.

How does Synthetic Genomics plan to make money?
We’re not trying to take over the world. We’re a bleeding-edge technology company that will make its money by licensing. But I expect you’ll see us announcing partnerships with some very large companies. 

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