John Cumbers is founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, a global network of biological engineers and entrepreneurs in a promising new scientific field known as "synthetic biology." The San Francisco Bay Area is a leader in this little-known but fast-growing industry, which reassembles the building blocks of life in imaginative and diverse ways.
SynBioBeta's conferences and webinars have featured leaders in both tech and the sciences, ranging from fomer Google CEO Eric Schmidt, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, NIH Director Francis Collins and Stanford professor of bioengineering Drew Endy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Biology feels as natural as ladybugs, daisies and bunny rabbits. What makes it "synthetic"?
A: Every nucleotide, every A, C, T and G in every single one of your cells is synthesized. You were synthesized. Your DNA from your mom and dad is synthesized into 100 trillion cells – that's 100 trillion copies of your DNA - that makes you you. So, in that respect, "synthetic" is natural.
However, the name "synthetic biology" has come to mean a new set of technologies around reading, writing and editing of DNA, and designing, building and testing of biological cells to perform particular functions.
I describe "synthetic biology" as a movement to make biology easier to engineer.
Q: What does it do?
A: We're creating some cool innovations and applications, from food to fuel, drugs, materials, chemicals and consumer products.
For instance, Berkeley Lights is an Emeryville-based company that has built a piece of hardware to help discover potential drug-quality antibodies against the COVID-19 virus.
It allows you to take a sample of blood from a COVID-19-recovered patient, separate out the immune cells and put them into different "pens" on a machine – they're called "nanopens" - with optical tweezers... You incubate them and have them make antibodies.