Synthetic Life Created by Synthetic Genomics

January 22. 2014. 3 mins read
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In an earlier article, we discussed the exciting potential of synthetic biology, a market that according to the UK government will grow from $1.8 billion in 2011 to $11.8 billion by 2016. One pioneer in the field of synthetic biology is American biologist and entrepreneur, Craig Venter. In 2010, Mr. Venter created a self-replicating single-cell organism which was the first time humans had created “synthetic life” and of which he is currently attempting to patent. One company co-founded by Mr. Venter which seeks to be doing some great things with synthetic biology is Synthetic Genomics.

About Synthetic Genomics
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Founded in 2005 by Craig Venter and Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith, California based Synthetic Genomics is dedicated to using modified microorganisms to produce clean fuels and biochemicals. With Mr. Venter at the helm as CEO, some of the Company’s largest investors include BP, Biotechonomy, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Meteor Group. In 2009, ExxonMobil announced that it would pay Synthetic Genomics up to $300 million to develop algae-based fuels, however, in May 2013 a revised agreement with Exxon was announced and speculations were made as to whether or not Synthetic Genomics was having to go back to the drawing board. Said Mr. Venter regarding the new agreement:

“We look forward to working with ExxonMobil to undertake this in-depth focus on the basic science research to better understand and enhance algae. The new agreement gives us an opportunity to really focus on improving algal strains using our core synthetic biology technologies to develop biofuels.”

Financial details of the new agreement were not disclosed and there is no indication given as to how much of the original $300 million (which was subject to milestones) was actually received by Synthetic Genomics.

Intellectual Property

Synthetic Genomics sponsors fundamental research at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit organization founded by Mr. Venter in 2006. A world leader in genomics research, JCVI has more than 400 scientists and staff working on a variety of genomic research and policy fronts with more than 250,000 square feet of laboratory space, and locations in Rockville, Maryland and San Diego, California. Synthetic Genomics has exclusive access to new inventions and discoveries in synthetic genomics research developed by the JCVI and so far has filed 13 patent family applications on the unique inventions of the JCVI team which they plan to provide licenses for.


Synthetic Genomics is currently working in three broad projects areas of Renewable Fuels and Chemicals (alliance with ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company to develop algal biofuels), Microbial-Enhanced Hydrocarbon Recovery (collaboration with BP), and Sustainable Agricultural Products (through the company, Agradis which was jointly formed with Plenus SA de CV). In January 2013 Monsanto (NYSE: MON) purchased certain technology assets from Agradis including the Agradis name and its library of beneficial plant microorganisms. At the same time, Monsanto also made a separate undisclosed investment in Synthetic Genomics and signed a 5 year R&D collaboration agreement focused on agricultural microorganisms.

Diagram of a "minimal cell" from the Royal Academy of Engineering
Diagram of a “minimal cell” from the Royal Academy of Engineering


In 2010, Synthetic Genomics also formed a new company called Synthetic Genomics Vaccines Inc. (SGVI), to develop next-generation vaccines. At the same time, SGVI announced a three-year collaboration agreement with Novartis to apply synthetic genomics tools and technologies to accelerate the production of the influenza seed strains required for vaccine manufacturing. Given Synthetic Genomics’ exclusive access to such a large research group such as JCVI, they are certainly in a good position to be a potential leader in the commercialization of these exciting synthetic biology applications.


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