While the donkeys and elephants waste the short time they have on this planet debating the root cause of global weather patterns, unsung heroes work on solving some of the world’s biggest problems. Spend some time in Southern Asia – where one in four people on this planet live – and you’ll see what real environmental problems look like. Six of the world’s ten most polluted cities can be found in India, the largest country in Southern Asia where air pollution isn’t the only urgent problem.
“Just how bad is India’s plastic problem?” was the title of an Economic Times article last year which talks about how India generates 9,000 Asian elephants worth of plastic waste a day – about 25,940 tons. Of that, 85% is inadequately disposed of which means it’s at risk of polluting rivers and oceans. As for the second and third biggest Southern Asian countries – Bangladesh and Pakistan – the problem is even worse.
Countries with biggest percentage of plastic inadequately managed – Credit: Our World in Data
Before we start preaching to the 1.765 billion people in these three countries about recycling plastic, we need to first focus on adequately disposing of it.
One solution might be to create some organisms that would eat the plastic. It’s just one use case that’s being engineered by a biomanufacturing firm that’s bringing ideas to market better, faster, cheaper, and more sustainably than ever before possible.
The Amazing Power of Biomanufacturing
Biology is the most powerful technology on the planet – Zymergen
Founded in 2013, San Francisco startup Zymergen has now taken in a whopping $874 million in funding from a slew of names including Goldman Sachs, Baillie Gifford, and Softbank. About four years ago, we wrote about how Zymergen uses robotics and artificial intelligence to build synthetic organisms – biological machines manufactured to specification. Using organisms to replace environmentally unfriendly manufacturing processes is even more appealing if there are cost savings involved.
The newly emerging field of “biomanufacturing,” or “biofacturing” as Zymergen calls it, is the real potential value-add for synthetic biology, a goal that’s been quite elusive so far for the many synthetic biology stocks that have failed to live up to their promises. That’s certainly not the case for Zymergen. As of 2019, the company had manufactured 600,000 tons of product using microbes procured from one of the world’s largest IP-protected genomic databases (250 million sequences genes). While much of Zymergen’s work is being kept under wraps, what they do disclose is tantalizing.
Enzymes That Eat Plastic
A few years back, Japanese scientists found an interesting little bacterium in a Japanese landfill. It was extremely polite, it bowed a lot, and it munched on plastic like a delicious bowl of motsu nikomi. Then, some other scientists used an X-ray beam 10 billion times brighter than the sun like a microscope, and figured out how to increase the speed at which the plastic was gobbled by six times – at room temperature. The announcement, made just days ago, probably caught the attention of Zymergen which is also working on a similar application with Japan’s second-largest chemical company – Sumitomo Chemical. The two companies are starting with the toughest and most widespread plastic of all: polyethylene (PE), and they’ve already had at least one product success story working together.
All the activists using their smartphones to condemn big bad corporations on Twitter will be pleased to know that some common materials used in nearly all electronics devices are becoming more environmentally friendly. This past spring, Zymergen announced their first standalone, commercially available product called HYALINE – a bio-generated specialty film with superior properties that’s made of completely new polymers never manufactured before by mankind at any scale.
HYALIBE can be used to create completely transparent, high temperature printed electronics like flexible printed circuit boards that eliminate epoxy and acrylic adhesive layers, resulting in a 30% thinner and more flexible system. It’s functionally superior to existing products on the market – like Kapton polyimide films from DuPont – more environmentally friendly, and we’re guessing cheaper. Zymergen will be shipping HYALINE to key electronics customers in the coming months while continuing to develop a full portfolio of high-performance adhesives and coatings for the electronics industry, all of which will be more environmentally friendly than what’s widely in use today.
The Pesticide Problem
Another common talking point for the ESG types is the pesticide problem. Zymergen published a blog post a few weeks back about “the pesticide paradox.” Basically, the pesticides which helped us feed billions more people are now resulting in an impending proliferation of pests that are resistant to current chemical pesticides.
Pesticide problems in the country most Americans associate with safaris, Africa – Credit: The Economist
Since it takes 12 to 15 years to bring a new pesticide to market, problems are happening faster than the agricultural industry can solve them. For example:
- 20-41% loss in global rice and maize yield due to pests & pathogens
- 35% decline in US honeybee population in 2019
- 100% increase in the number of weed species resistant to herbicides over the last 20 years. 100 million acres of row crops in the US that have been infested with herbicide-resistant weeds.
Everyone loves food, but nobody wants to eat anything that’s been treated with pesticides because they can cause unwanted side effects. That’s why Zymergen has partnered with FMC, a leading agricultural sciences company, “to change the very nature of crop protection…with nature.”
Gobbling Up More Awesome Tech
The technology stack used by Zymergen sounds truly awesome, and they’re acquiring technologies that make their biomanufacturing plants even more powerful. Since we last looked at Zymergen, they’ve gobbled up two tech startups.
The first was Radiant Genomics, a company Zymergen acquired in January 2018 that is developing an integrated enzyme discovery service built upon the largest cloned metagenomic sequence collection reported to date. The service is expected to overcome a major bottleneck in enzyme discovery, and had received funding from the National Institutes of Health.
The second Zymergen acquisition was in March of this year when they acquired enEvolv, a genomics engineering startup co-founded by the legendary George Church. From an article by SynBioBeta:
Zymergen will use enEvolv’s ultra-high-throughput technology to screen and select individual cells from among millions, finding those rare cells with just the right genes and properties needed in biomanufacturing applications. It’s so good, enEvolv says it can do in a single month what would take 30 of today’s high-speed robots 2,000 years to do.
enEvolv uses one of nature’s greatest tools, evolution, along with some gene-editing magic to run experiments on billions of strains to find those best suited for a particular application. It’s something that Zymergen thinks “could cut up to two years off of early product development.”
As of December of 2019, Zymergen’s microbes could be found in over $1 billion worth of products, a drop in the bucket when you consider the chemicals industry is worth $750 billion a year. It’s no surprise then that Zymergen isn’t the only biomanufacturing name in the game. Another company that’s taken in a massive amount of money to solve big problems using synthetic biology is Ginkgo Bioworks, but that’s a story for another day.
Those who complain about the world’s biggest problems always want others to take the actions needed to solve them. They stamp their feet, wave their picket signs, and demand that others change their behavior so they can feel good about their “activism.” This is getting us nowhere. Instead, these activists should pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields, then work towards using technology to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
Today’s disruptive technologies can solve our biggest problems, and may even allow us to pass through “the Great Filter.” What’s happening at Zymergen is the culmination of the most disruptive technologies out there – synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and genomics. Biomanufacturing is set to disrupt our entire planet, in the best of ways, and it deserves far more attention than it’s presently receiving.
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