The first synthetic biology company

Codon Devices may be the world’s first true synthetic biology company. What is synthetic biology? Is it artificial life? No. The name is misleading, but it really refers to the idea of bringing a design-based engineering approach to biology: take well-understood biological mechanisms (protein synthesis, biochemical pathways) and bend them to create new desired end products. What differentiates it from earlier biotech approaches is the unprecedented degree of biological understanding. Milk, for example, is economically useful and chemically complex, but milking a cow doesn’t require a degree in molecular biology. We merely harvest what nature presents. Suppose, however, you wanted that cow’s milk to contain large amounts of a specific vaccine. That would mean introducing altogether new biochemical pathways inside the cow: synthetic biology. If you could pull off a trick like that reliably, you’d be onto something big. That big something is what Codon Devices is shooting for. As Drew Endy, one of the founders, observes, “The scope of material I can work with is not limited to the set of things that we inherit from nature.”

Codon Devices has assembled a biotech Who’s Who list for its founders and advisors, along with money from storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. So they’re off to a good start. In my googling, I came across this page about Codon from Drew Endy’s lab at MIT which was embedded in a wiki called the Endipedia. In the wiki, you can learn things like how to operate a microfluidic chemostat, and the favorite slogan to describe synthetic biology: “Making life better, one part at a time.” A blog entry from another researcher puts it this way: “Every time I mention my research to lay people I elicit two widely different responses: It’s either ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ or ‘MY GOD, you’ll kill us all!’.”

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