Synthetic Biology for Bio-Based Materials

Detailed overview of innovation with sample startups and prominent university research

What it is

Synthetic biology is revolutionizing the bio-based materials industry, offering a powerful toolkit to engineer organisms for the production of sustainable and high-performance materials. This innovative field involves redesigning and reprogramming biological systems, like microorganisms and plants, to create novel bio-based materials with tailored properties. This approach goes beyond simply extracting materials from nature; it leverages the power of biology to manufacture entirely new materials with enhanced functionalities and reduced environmental impact.

Impact on climate action

Synthetic Biology for Bio-Based Materials revolutionizes material production, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. By engineering organisms to produce sustainable alternatives like bioplastics and biofuels, it mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and plastic pollution. This innovation accelerates the transition to a greener economy, fostering a more resilient and sustainable future.


  • Genetic Engineering: Synthetic biology utilizes genetic engineering techniques to modify the DNA of organisms, introducing new genes or altering existing ones to direct the production of specific bio-based materials.
  • Metabolic Engineering: Metabolic pathways within organisms are re-engineered to optimize the production of desired bio-based materials, maximizing yield and efficiency.
  • Directed Evolution: This technique involves artificially accelerating the evolution of organisms, selecting for desirable traits related to bio-based material production, such as increased yield, enhanced material properties, or improved tolerance to specific environmental conditions.
  • Systems Biology: A holistic understanding of complex biological systems is used to design and engineer organisms for bio-based material production, taking into account interactions between genes, proteins, and metabolic pathways.

TRL : 3-7 (depending on the specific material and application)

Prominent Innovation themes

  • Engineered Microorganisms for Biopolymer Production: Microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeast, are engineered to produce biopolymers like PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), cellulose, and even spider silk proteins.
  • Plant-Based Biofactories: Plants are genetically modified to produce bio-based materials within their tissues, acting as sustainable biofactories. For example, researchers have engineered plants to produce spider silk proteins in their leaves.
  • Bio-Based Materials with Novel Properties: Synthetic biology enables the creation of bio-based materials with unique properties not found in nature, such as enhanced strength, self-healing capabilities, or responsiveness to specific stimuli.
  • Sustainable Production Processes: Synthetic biology can be used to optimize bio-based material production processes, making them more efficient, reducing waste, and minimizing environmental impact.

Other Innovation Subthemes

  • Genetic Code Engineering
  • Metabolic Pathway Optimization
  • Accelerated Evolution Techniques
  • Systems Biology Integration
  • Microbial Biopolymer Engineering
  • Plant Biofactory Development
  • Novel Bio-Based Material Properties
  • Sustainable Production Optimization
  • Cell Programming Platforms
  • Automation in Synthetic Biology
  • Machine Learning in Bioengineering
  • Spider Silk Protein Engineering
  • High-Performance Bio-Based Fibers
  • Bio-Based Material Applications in Textiles
  • Biocompatible Implant Development
  • Drug Delivery System Innovation
  • Self-Healing Material Creation
  • Responsive Material Design
  • Commercialization of Bio-Based Textiles
  • Bio-Based Fragrance and Flavor Production

Sample Global Startups and Companies

  1. Ginkgo Bioworks:
    • Technology Focus: Ginkgo Bioworks specializes in using synthetic biology to engineer microbes for various applications, including the production of bio-based materials. They leverage genetic engineering techniques to design microorganisms that can efficiently produce specific compounds or materials.
    • Uniqueness: Ginkgo Bioworks stands out for its platform approach, which allows for the rapid prototyping and scale-up of bio-based production processes. Their automated foundries enable high-throughput screening and optimization of microbial strains, accelerating the development of novel materials.
    • End-User Segments: Their bio-based materials may find applications across industries such as textiles, consumer goods, healthcare, and agriculture, where sustainable alternatives to traditional materials are in demand.
  2. Zymergen:
    • Technology Focus: Zymergen combines machine learning, automation, and synthetic biology to engineer microbes for the production of bio-based chemicals and materials. Their platform enables the discovery and optimization of microbial strains with enhanced performance characteristics.
    • Uniqueness: Zymergen’s strength lies in its use of machine learning algorithms to analyze vast amounts of biological data and predictively design microbial strains with desired properties. This approach allows for the creation of highly tailored bio-based materials with improved performance and functionality.
    • End-User Segments: Their bio-based materials may cater to industries such as electronics, coatings, packaging, and specialty chemicals, where performance attributes like durability, conductivity, and biodegradability are crucial.
  3. Bolt Threads:
    • Technology Focus: Bolt Threads specializes in engineering proteins inspired by nature to create bio-based materials with unique properties. They focus on developing novel fibers and textiles using synthetic biology techniques, mimicking natural silk and other materials.
    • Uniqueness: Bolt Threads is known for its innovative approach to biomimicry, designing materials that replicate the strength, flexibility, and sustainability of natural fibers. Their bio-based materials offer a sustainable alternative to conventional textiles, with customizable properties and reduced environmental impact.
    • End-User Segments: Their bio-based materials are well-suited for applications in fashion, apparel, outdoor gear, and personal care products, catering to consumers increasingly interested in sustainable and eco-friendly products.

Sample Research At Top-Tier Universities

  1. University of California, Berkeley:
    • Technology Enhancements: Researchers at UC Berkeley are leveraging synthetic biology techniques to engineer microorganisms capable of producing bio-based materials with tailored properties. They are using genetic engineering to modify metabolic pathways and optimize the production of biopolymers, such as PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) and PLA (polylactic acid), from renewable feedstocks.
    • Uniqueness of Research: UC Berkeley’s approach involves the design of synthetic biological systems for the scalable and sustainable production of bio-based materials. They are exploring advanced gene editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9, to precisely control the expression of genes involved in biosynthesis pathways, leading to improved yields and product quality.
    • End-use Applications: The bio-based materials produced through synthetic biology at UC Berkeley have applications in various industries, including packaging, textiles, and biomedical sectors. For example, PHA-based bioplastics can be used as sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics in packaging materials, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and mitigating environmental pollution.
  2. Imperial College London:
    • Technology Enhancements: Researchers at Imperial College London are developing novel synthetic biology platforms for the production of advanced bio-based materials with enhanced functionalities. They are engineering microbial strains capable of producing complex biomolecules, such as proteins and peptides, for applications in drug delivery, tissue engineering, and biocompatible materials.
    • Uniqueness of Research: Imperial College’s research focuses on the integration of synthetic biology with materials science and biotechnology to create bio-inspired materials with unprecedented properties. They are exploring the use of genetically engineered microorganisms to produce bio-based materials with programmable structures and functionalities, mimicking natural materials found in living organisms.
    • End-use Applications: The bio-based materials developed at Imperial College have applications in diverse fields, including healthcare, biotechnology, and environmental remediation. For instance, bio-based hydrogels synthesized from engineered microorganisms can be used as scaffolds for tissue regeneration and as carriers for controlled drug delivery, offering new solutions for personalized medicine and regenerative therapies.
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
    • Technology Enhancements: MIT researchers are pioneering the use of synthetic biology tools and techniques for the production of bio-based materials with tailored properties and functionalities. They are engineering microbial hosts, such as bacteria and yeast, to biosynthesize novel biopolymers and bioactive compounds from renewable feedstocks, such as sugars and plant biomass.
    • Uniqueness of Research: MIT’s approach combines synthetic biology with metabolic engineering and materials science to design bio-based materials with desired properties, such as strength, elasticity, and biodegradability. They are developing modular genetic circuits and pathway optimization algorithms to streamline the engineering of microbial factories for bio-based material production.
    • End-use Applications: The bio-based materials produced through synthetic biology at MIT have applications in diverse sectors, including biomedicine, agriculture, and consumer goods. For example, bio-based polymers engineered for specific functionalities, such as antimicrobial activity or biocompatibility, can be used in medical devices, agricultural biodegradable mulches, and sustainable packaging materials, contributing to the transition towards a circular bioeconomy.

commercial_img Commercial Implementation

While still in its early stages, synthetic biology is rapidly advancing and is already enabling the commercial production of some bio-based materials:

  • Bio-Based Spider Silk: Bolt Threads has launched a commercially available yarn made from their bio-engineered spider silk, demonstrating the potential of synthetic biology to create high-performance and sustainable textiles.
  • Bio-Based Fragrances and Flavors: Ginkgo Bioworks has partnered with several companies to produce bio-based fragrances and flavors using engineered microorganisms. These products are used in perfumes, cosmetics, and food products.