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Students tour biotechnology company, learn science of designing life

Ginkgo Bioworks develops new strains of yeasts, bacteria to produce natural flavors, fragrances

Nine Brown and RISD students had the unique opportunity Thursday to tour the laboratory of Ginkgo Bioworks, a major biotechnology company, to learn more about the new field of biological design. The students met biologists and designers and examined miniature breweries containing bacteria and culture broth.

Specializing in biological design, Ginkgo creates organisms like yeast and bacteria engineered to produce useful organic compounds, such as perfumes or natural flavorings. The finished products are then licensed to clients like scent houses. Clients grow the cultures and harvest their products on a large scale.

Sponsored by the biology branch of Brown Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, a campus organization that focuses on the intersection of traditional scientific disciplines and art, the tour included a discussion with two senior Ginkgo employees as well as a presentation of their foundry, a largely robotically run organism experimentation lab.

Ginkgo was co-founded in 2008 by Tom Knight, who was then a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Within seven years, the company raised over $45 million in funds from many investors, including the San Francisco-based startup fund Y Combinator, said Creative Director Christina Agapakis.

A great deal of the company’s work entails genetic modification of simple organisms, implementing common design processes on the biological scale, said Patrick Boyle. The costs of DNA and other simple biological samples in the market have fallen low enough to allow for mass experimentation on living systems, Boyle said.

Taking advantage of the natural metabolic pathways of plants and other organisms, Ginkgo workers methodically alter DNA and the resulting proteins, slowly recreating the compounds needed for industrial and commercial industries, Agapakis said.

Since beer- and wine-making involve many of the same principles as Ginkgo’s main endeavor, many of the workers also experiment with small-batch alcohol production as an interesting side project, Agapakis said.

Most of the wet lab is taken up by machines and computers that automate most of the production process, Boyle said. While he and Agapakis remember their grad school days of pipetting and waiting for slow reactions, large robotic arms now handle everything from mutations to protein analysis. On this larger scale, it is much easier to play around with metabolic pathways and find the right products, Boyle said. “If you watched ‘Independence Day,’ it’s like the alien spaceship that they reverse engineer,” he said.

The tour group was specifically interested in how to translate a traditional design and art concentration into this kind of career.

One of the touring students, Sydney Morrison ’16, an independent concentrator in biodesign, said she is looking for a career in biotechnology research. “I really love synthetic biology,” she said, adding that though most people assume prototyping and method-testing are used only in engineering, they are also important to industrial design and biology.

Boyle expressed similar sentiments, adding that a majority of the over 60 workers at Ginkgo have diverse work and academic experiences, including backgrounds in computer science, biology and design. But what they all have in common is strong engineering principles and an understanding of the design process, he said.

While the workspace itself has a Silicon Valley feel, Ginkgo has not expanded that far west. “Don’t graduate and join our competitors,” Agapakis joked to the students. The industry is still young enough for collaboration and partnerships, she added.


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