The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Berkeley Lab $1.5 million to proceed with a “Task Area 1” (TA1) design and study phase for the Berkeley Open Biofoundry (BOB). By providing the science and technology that will enable the engineering of biological systems to produce valuable chemical products on a commercial scale, BOB is conceived to do for biology what the Molecular Foundry does for nanomaterials.
BOB could lead to a center of excellence for biomanufacturing at Berkeley Lab that would be funded at a sustained level of about $100 million per year through a diverse portfolio of sources. This biomanufacturing center would aim to meet the biomanufacturing challenges through three main interrelated components: a one-of-a-kind open collaboration facility that would provide users with access to state-of-the-art synthetic biology and computing technologies; a biological fabrication facility that would develop and supply the biological “parts” needed to quickly, cheaply, and easily engineer biological systems; and an advanced synthetic biology research facility where technologies would be developed to efficiently produce molecules for fuels, chemicals, novel materials and other valuable products.
The idea behind BOB is to create a new type of user facility in which industrial, academic, and government stakeholders will have access to engineered biological systems, including microbes, plants and tissues, at all stages of the engineering process, including design, building, testing and learning. BOB represents an important step along a pathway that will ultimately lead to a biomanufacturing center for excellence. This center of excellence is envisioned to be a Silicon Valley-style ecosystem of engineering for biology where designs and start-up systems are created but manufacturing is done elsewhere.—Dr. Mary Maxon, the head of strategic planning and development for Biosciences at Berkeley Lab
(Dr. Maxon served as Assistant Director for Biological Research at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy prior to moving to Berkeley Lab.)
Manufacturing is defined as the human transformation of materials from one form to another, more valuable form. Whereas many traditional manufacturing processes deplete natural resources and damage the environment, biomanufacturing can be both sustainable and environmentally benign. The primary challenges to biomanufacturing have been complexity and cost. Despite these challenges, biomanufacturing now accounts for more than $190 billion annually in US revenues, with California, the birthplace of genetic engineering, accounting for roughly 22% of that figure, according to the Lab.
Dr. Jay Keasling, Berkeley Lab’s Associate Lab Director for Biosciences, who is spearheading the BOB proposal along with Maxon, notes that biomanufacturing could be a significantly larger fraction of the US economy if biology were easier and cheaper to engineer. Keasling engineered a strain of yeast that can be used to produce artemisinin, the world’s most powerful anti-malaria drug. When exclusively produced from the wormwood plant, the supply of artemisinin was unreliable and its price too high for the people in developing nations who need it most. With the arrival of a microbial-based form of the drug, the supply has stabilized and the price has become affordable.
The construction of the artemisinin-producing yeast required $25 million in funding and 150 person-years of work, typical of similar-sized bioengineering projects. New synthetic biology and computational technologies are needed to accelerate the development of productive biological systems and reduce their costs, and industry needs access to them if traditional manufacturing is to be transformed by biomanufacturing.—Jay Keasling
Within the first five years of BOB, if it is fully funded by DARPA and corporate users, we will aim to speed the design time for developing desired biological systems so that it will be 50 times faster than it is today. We’ll also aim to make construction time five times faster than it is now and reduce costs by a factor of 20. The goal is to generate 350 molecules that currently can’t be manufactured with biological methods, including some that currently rely on petroleum sources and traditional manufacturing.—Mary Mxon
The proposal for BOB was submitted in response to DARPA’s “Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules” program which is providing approximately $110 million to “transform biology into an engineering practice” through the development of the tools, technologies, methodologies and infrastructure for scalable, integrated, rapid design and prototyping. Berkeley Lab submitted the proposal in partnership with four private corporations, Amyris, Agilent, Lockheed Martin and 20n Labs. If the proposal is approved BOB would inhabit space in the EmeryStation East building in Emeryville currently occupied by the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and Amyris, and where Agilent, Lockheed Martin, and 20n Labs will send team members.
One of the key features of BOB will be its use of sophisticated “machine-learning” techniques to make advances in the field even from efforts that initially are unsuccessful.
Berkeley Lab will submit its TA1 proposal to DARPA for BOB later this summer.