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DARPA Awards $8 Million Synthetic Biology Contract

DNA fragment (Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

The Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded an $8 million contract to Amyris Inc. of California for tools to expand the scope of Amyris’s industrial synthetic biology technology across various biological platforms and cell types. DARPA awarded the contract under its Living Foundries research program.

With the Living Foundries program, DARPA aims to create an engineering framework for biology to speed the biological design-build-test cycle and expand the complexity of systems that can be engineered. The program seeks  to develop new tools, technologies, and methodologies to decouple biological design from fabrication, and yield design rules and tools, as well as manage biological complexity through abstraction and standardization.

Amyris says it has developed synthetic biology technologies to make biology more of a engineering endeavor rather than a craft. The company’s synthetic biology platform involves strain engineering, process development, scale-up, and in some cases, chemical finishing. The platform uses high-throughput genetic engineering methods as the first step to produce target molecules, mainly with yeast strains.

The genetically engineered strains then are fermented to produce the target molecules, which are then scaled up to commercial volumes in Amyris’s pilot plants. Where the initial target molecule is an intermediate rather than final product, Amyris says it can take the next steps using chemical processes, such as hydrogenation and polymerization, to generate the final product.

One of the company’s projects has devised genetic engineering and screening processes for modifying the way microbes process sugar for the generation of biofuels and industrial chemicals. By controlling their metabolic pathways, Amyris says it can design yeast microbes, and use them with established fermentation processes, to convert plant-sourced sugars such as those from sugar cane or sweet sorghum into target molecules. The company says it is also developing ingredients for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, flavors and fragrances, polymers, lubricants, and consumer products.

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