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Synthetic Biology Census Shows Company Growth, Consolidation

DNA fragment (Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

A census of organizations, agencies, and companies involved in synthetic biology shows rapid growth of the field in the past four years, but also some retrenchment, particularly in the private sector. The study was conducted by the Synthetic Biology Project, an initiative of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The Wilson Center has been tracking the progress of synthetic biology as a discipline — defined as research leading to the design and construction of new biological parts and devices, or the re-design of existing biological systems — since 2009. The project team compiled the census from official publications and Web sites, research literature, patent documents, and media articles. Work conducted only in molecular biology, systems biology, or nanotechnology related to biology were not included.

The findings show the number of entities working in 2013 numbering 508, with the vast majority of the organizations divided almost evenly between universities (40%) and companies (38%). The number of companies involved in synthetic biology more than tripled from 61 in 2009 to 192 in 2013. Companies in the U.S. accounted for 131 of the 192 companies (68%), with about two-thirds of the U.S. companies located in California (50), Massachusetts (27), and New York (11). In addition, the number of U.S. independent research institutes in the field doubled, from 28 in 2009 to 57 in 2013.

Europe has 43 companies working in synthetic biology, according to the Wilson Center’s findings, with 25 of those 43 companies divided between the U.K. (15) and Switzerland (10). Some 81 universities and research institutes are engaged in synthetic biology work.  The census uncovered 13 companies in the Asia-Pacific region working in synthetic biology, along with 27 universities or research institutes.

Companies working in synthetic biology are designing or producing a range of medical, industrial, and consumer products. The census finds between 20 and 50 companies designing or producing medicines, specialty or fine chemicals, fuels or additives, or materials such as plastics, polymers, or rubbers. The end-products for the work in chemicals — reported by four or more companies — include mainly home and personal care products, flavors, fragrances, cosmetics, adhesives, and lubricants.

David Rejeski, director of the Synthetic Biology Project, says part of the growth of the field worldwide “has been driven by continuing government investments in the science.” Rejeski adds, “Another important factor has been the rapidly declining costs of gene sequencing, which has supported more effective approaches to engineering biological systems.”

While the number of companies working in synthetic biology increased in the U.S. and Europe, the growth has not been uniform. Since 2009, says the Wilson Center, 17 companies — including 6 of those in business in 2009 — were acquired or closed between 2009 and 2013.

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