Expanding microbial potential through human genome insights and primordial genomics

Primordial Genetics, a pioneer in synthetic biology, is reshaping the way we approach biotechnology. At the helm is Helge Zieler, whose vision has propelled the company to the forefront of constructive biology. This innovative method doesn’t just tweak existing organisms; it builds new genes from scratch. By piecing together genomic elements, Primordial Genetics fast-tracks the development of enzymes and microbes that are not just efficient but revolutionary.

The essence of their work lies in leveraging human genetic insights to boost microbial capabilities. It’s like giving nature a nudge, encouraging evolution to sprint rather than stroll. This technique holds immense promise for industries far and wide, enabling leaps in productivity and sustainability that were previously unimaginable.

As Zieler shared insights about their breakthroughs, it became clear: Primordial Genetics isn’t just participating in the biotech wave; they’re one of its chief architects. Their contributions are pivotal, ushering in an era where biology’s boundaries are continually expanded through ingenuity and precision engineering.

What motivated you to establish Primordial Genetics and how has it changed over time?

As a seasoned expert in molecular genetics, I’ve always had a passionate drive to push the boundaries of biology towards impactful and benevolent applications. This journey led me to Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI), where my focus was on plant genomics amidst the company’s broader interest in harnessing microbial engineering for innovative biological productions. It became evident that there were untapped advanced technologies within microbial engineering that could revolutionize our approach but weren’t being fully utilized.

The visionaries at SGI, including its founder and CEO Craig Venter, were pioneering in creating microbial genomes from scratch, aiming to engineer designer cells. Despite the groundbreaking potential of this technology, it was clear that its practical application was still years away. Meanwhile, conventional methods like mutagenesis—despite their effectiveness—seemed outdated compared to what we now understand about genetics and genome sequences.

This realization sparked an idea within me: leveraging complete genome sequences—which contain detailed blueprints of cellular functions—to innovate a more accessible technology. Driven by this ambition, I ventured out to establish Primordial Genetics. The essence behind naming the company goes deep into the belief that earlier organisms thrived uninhibitedly under favorable conditions—a level of productivity we aim to revisit by cutting through millions of years of evolutionary caution.

At Primordial Genetics, we’re dedicated to unlocking natural cellular functions to forge new pathways with our flagship concept—the Function Generator. Initially just an idea without empirical backing, it gradually gained traction after relentless pursuit for funding which finally bore fruit thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation and support from local investors in mid-2013.

Thus began our journey towards not just revisiting primordial productivity but also making sophisticated genetic technologies accessible and practical for today’s challenges—fueling innovations poised at the intersection of tradition and frontier science.

Could you provide some samples?

In the quest for enhancing alcohol production, the focus shifted to boosting yeast’s resilience against alcohol. The globe churns out an impressive amount of ethanol annually using yeast that converts sugar into this valuable resource. However, there’s a catch – as ethanol levels spike during fermentation, yeast hits a roadblock, halting growth due to the very product it creates. This challenge sparked an initiative to genetically fortify yeast against its alcoholic Achilles’ heel.

After rigorous efforts and successive enhancements spanning three generations, a breakthrough was achieved. A collection of genes capable of elevating alcohol tolerance in yeast was discovered. These genetic tweaks now empower manufacturers to step up their fermentation game significantly.

Function Generator emerged as a technological beacon in this venture with its knack for not just elevating alcohol tolerance but revitalizing microbes across the board. Tagged informally as capable of enhancing ‘any organism, any trait,’ this tech requires minimal preliminary information about an organism to kickstart enhancements.

Setting Function Generator apart is its ability to delve deep into vast genomic territories that other technologies barely scratch the surface of. This expansive exploration unlocks unparalleled potentials and paves the way for groundbreaking solutions.

The prowess of Function Generator wasn’t limited to improving microbial traits alone; it proved remarkably efficient at refining enzymes too by making substantial alterations in their sequences. Currently, this innovation is steering endeavors toward advancing enzymatic systems for producing RNA and DNA – crucial molecules in biotechnology and medicine realms today.

Particularly noteworthy is our involvement in enhancing enzymes critical for manufacturing mRNA – the key component in cutting-edge mRNA vaccines like those developed for covid-19 and numerous mRNA-based treatments under scrutiny by various entities. Another intriguing avenue being explored revolves around enzymatic synthesis of oligonucleotides used across therapeutic applications, diagnostics, research tools, and even innovative concepts like DNA data storage solutions.

Looking ahead, our commercial strategy is laser-focused on amassing a repository of genetic marvels, including these advanced enzymatic systems, poised for licensing or sales prospects with other enterprises. Ultimately aiming at self-sustained production lines serving up RNA and DNA supplies directly to pharmaceutical giants among others.

How have you impacted society?

Expanding microbial potential through human genome insights and primordial genomics

At the core, our mission revolves around enhancing how things are made. We’re setting our sights on a future where industries lean away from traditional, environmentally taxing resources like chemicals and fossil fuels. Instead, we’re championing bioproduction—a move that’s bound to revolutionize manufacturing methods in favor of eco-friendliness and sustainability.

Experts far and wide agree that biotechnology is not just a fleeting trend but the very fabric of future industry standards. It promises advancements that harmonize with both human needs and environmental preservation. Our company is at the forefront, pushing boundaries to ensure our operations not only stay ahead in the market but also bring about positive change for people everywhere.

We place immense value on empowering our team members because we understand that innovation starts with inspired individuals. Even those working behind the scenes are essential to our vision; their dedication to crafting groundbreaking products propels society forward.

But it’s not all about gadgets or cutting-edge tech—our philosophy extends beyond the lab. Engaging with communities plays a pivotal role in what we do, shedding light on biotech’s benefits and fostering wider acceptance of these innovations. This dialogue isn’t just beneficial for us—it sparks interest and investment in biotechnologies that can redefine our relationship with nature.

Living by this ethos means cultivating an organizational culture where work-life balance isn’t just encouraged; it’s integral to success. The modern workplace can often feel like a pressure cooker, prioritizing professional achievement above all else. However, we believe nurturing a balanced life enriches creativity and productivity, ultimately leading to breakthroughs that benefit everyone.

In essence, what sets us apart is not just what we make but how we make it—prioritizing people’s well-being alongside profit margins and pioneering technologies for a brighter tomorrow.

Ethical Challenges Faced in Your Profession

It’s a common observation that many folks don’t quite get the nuts and bolts of the tech they use every day, whether it’s their smartphone or laptop. This lack of deep understanding doesn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm for these gadgets, probably because they’ve become such an integral part of daily life. On the other hand, anything that smacks of biology or biotech tends to be approached with more caution, even though it’s arguably closer to our own flesh and blood reality.

The journey through biotechnology hasn’t been without its bumps in the road, especially when it comes down to ethical debates. A lot of the worry has centered on tweaking organisms genetically and then letting them loose in nature. Thankfully, as more people have come to understand how strict regulations keep things safe, those fears have started to fade away. It turns out; we can tweak nature without causing havoc—provided we keep a watchful eye on things.

In our corner of the world, ethics isn’t just another box to tick—it’s woven into everything we do. We’re lucky enough to have a bioethicist in our crew who keeps us on our toes about these issues. She’s like our moral compass, making sure that what we innovate doesn’t just push boundaries but does so responsibly and with society’s best interests at heart.

We’re under no illusions here: if we don’t make an effort to bridge the gap between what we know and what John Q Public understands about our work, there’s a good chance they’ll give it a hard pass. That would be a real shame because biotech has some game-changing potential for all aspects of human life.

We’re half a century deep into this biotech revolution—it’s high time everyone gets on board with what this means not only scientifically but ethically too. Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s a missed opportunity for progress.

What current technologies or trends catch your attention?

Genomics has been a game-changer in the biotech field, continuously evolving from its early days of mapping entire genomes to today’s cutting-edge next-gen sequencing. This area is critical, with ongoing progress set to further enhance our understanding and application in medicine and industrial processes for years ahead.

One of the standout innovations in this journey is CRISPR, a groundbreaking genetic editor likened to the Microsoft Word for genetics. It enables precise alterations within an organism’s DNA, presenting exciting possibilities yet posing significant challenges. Figuring out which changes will genuinely improve an organism demands deep insight and expertise—exactly what Primordial Genetics excels at. Their focus lies on identifying these crucial modifications so CRISPR can implement them, potentially revolutionizing biology and biotech fields.

Another emerging trend is the enhanced capability for synthesizing nucleic acids, including RNA and DNA, essential carriers of genetic information. While genomics has allowed us to decode existing organisms’ genomes, synthetic biology aims at constructing entirely new forms of life from scratch—a task impossible without advancements in DNA and RNA synthesis technologies. Recent strides have made these processes more affordable and faster, but there’s still a long way to go. The forecast suggests that enzymatic technologies could propel synthesis methods forward in the next decade, significantly empowering synthetic biology.

In essence, between decoding life’s blueprint with genomics, rewriting it through CRISPR, and pioneering new forms via synthetic biology—the future looks bright for advancing our understanding and manipulation of biological systems.

Tips for scientists aiming for success in biotechnology

In the realm of science, the enthusiasm for one’s field is undeniable. However, this passion often leads to isolation rather than collaboration among research teams and industries. This siloed approach hinders the fusion of innovative ideas and methodologies that could propel scientific discovery forward. The challenge lies in bridging these gaps to foster partnerships that can lead to groundbreaking advancements.

Occasionally, a revolutionary technique emerges, transforming how we approach certain scientific questions—genomic sequencing and CRISPR are prime examples. Yet these instances are few and far between. More often than not, researchers stick to their familiar tools and techniques due to a natural hesitancy towards the unknown. The future of biology hinges on breaking away from this mindset to encourage more dynamic collaborations that leverage diverse expertise.

The metaphor of prehistoric individuals struggling with square wheels while ignoring someone offering round ones perfectly illustrates this resistance to change. It underscores a broader tendency within the scientific community: an intense focus on known pathways at the expense of exploring new possibilities. Overcoming this requires scientists to dream bigger and devote time to what might be discovered beyond current knowledge.

The influx of non-PhD professionals into synthetic biology brings fresh perspectives that could vitalize the field through enhanced collaborative efforts. This diversity in thought is crucial for fostering innovation and tackling complex challenges together.

For aspiring biologists, daring to venture into uncharted territories is essential. Embracing projects that demand creativity, commitment, and long-term vision will fuel significant breakthroughs in science. Reflecting on Norman Borlaug’s advice sheds light on this path; striving for unprecedented achievements may either result in monumental success or provide invaluable learning experiences—both outcomes enriching one’s journey in science immeasurably.