Explainer: How Synthetic Biology is Redesigning Life
Synthetic biology (SynBio) is a field of science that involves engineering life for human benefit. It has the potential to reshape many facets of society—from the ways we produce food, to how we detect and cure diseases.
It’s a fast-growing field of science. In fact, by 2026, the SynBio market’s global revenue is expected to reach $34.5 billion, at a CAGR of 21.9%.
While this fascinating area of research is worth paying attention to, it might be daunting to wrap your head around—especially if you don’t come from a scientific background. With this in mind, here’s an introduction to synthetic biology, and how it works.
What is Synthetic Biology?
As we touched on in the introduction, SynBio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning the biological components, systems, and interactions that make up life. By doing this, SynBio can grant organisms new abilities that are beneficial to humans.
It’s similar to genetic engineering, however, it’s slightly more granular. While genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, SynBio builds new genetic material from scratch.
SynBio has applications across a myriad of fields, with research covering everything from space exploration to drug discovery. Here’s a look at five of its real-world applications:
1. Medical Technologies
SynBio has a wide range of medical applications, including drug discovery, antibody production, and vaccine innovation (it’s been key in the fight against COVID-19). It also plays a significant role in “living drug” development, which is the use of living microbes to treat chronic or severe illnesses.
2. Sustainable Energies
Biofuel, which is renewable energy that’s derived from living matter, could replace petroleum and diesel in the near future—and synthetic biology technology is helping develop fermentation processes that will produce biofuel more efficiently.
Bioremediation uses living organisms to restore polluted sites to their original condition. This field uses SynBio to try and make the decontamination process more efficient, and to expand the list of contaminants that bioremediation can target.
4. Food and Agriculture
SynBio plays a significant role in cellular agriculture, which is the production of agricultural products directly from cells rather than livestock or plants. These modified foods might have higher nutritional value, or might be void of allergens. For instance, this can be used to make plant-based burgers taste more like meat.
5. Space Systems and Exploration
Synthetic biology and 3-D printing have huge potential to sustain life during space exploration. Using SynBio technology, cells and bacteria could be modified to produce a myriad of materials—from plastic to medicine, and even food—and astronauts could print these synthetically engineered materials on-demand while in space.
Zooming in: the Science Behind Synthetic Biology
Now that we’ve touched on SynBio’s use in a wide range of industries, let’s dive into the science behind it. In order to understand the mechanics of SynBio, it’s important to explore the relationship between DNA and protein production.
Proteins are the drivers of life in a cell—they’re responsible for carrying out all of life’s functions. They are created through a process called protein synthesis, which relies heavily on DNA. Why is DNA so important in protein production? Because it houses all the information a cell needs for protein synthesis.
Once a protein is formed, it embarks on a complex journey throughout the cell, interacting with a number of other proteins and cellular components to perform functions needed for the cell’s survival.
This process of protein production and cellular interaction is an example of a biological system. And it’s this biological system that synthetic biologists investigate, and try to manipulate.
The Five Main Areas of Research
After combing through the literature, we identified five major areas of SynBio research:
- In silico Synthetic Biology
Meaning “via computer”, this area of SynBio research uses computational simulations to design and predict new biological systems. It’s like using a drawing board before starting a project.
- “Unnatural” Molecular Biology
An area of research focused on altering the smallest unit of DNA—nucleotides.
This area of research deals with larger segments of DNA like genes or chromosomes, and sometimes other cell components that interact with DNA. It aims to create new proteins or protein systems and is the most popular area of SynBio research.
- Synthetic Genomics
Focused on altering and manipulating whole genomes (which is the complete set of a cell’s DNA).
- Protocell Synthetic Biology
This field of research aims to construct whole cells. This is a step towards creating organisms that are entirely synthetic
While early research in SynBio struggled to finish real-world projects, innovation in this field has ramped up quickly in the last decade.
Synthetic biology products are becoming increasingly more pervasive in everyday life—so much so that by 2030, some scientists believe most people will have eaten, worn, or used something created through synthetic biology.
How Big Tech Revenue and Profit Breaks Down, by Company
How do the big tech giants make their money? This series of graphics shows a breakdown of big tech revenue, using Q2 2022 income statements.
In the media and public discourse, companies like Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft are often lumped together into the same “Big Tech” category. After all, they constitute the world’s largest companies by market capitalization.
And because of this, it’s easy to assume they’re in direct competition with each other, fiercely battling for a bigger piece of the “Big Tech” pie. But while there is certainly competition between the world’s tech giants, it’s a lot less drastic than you might imagine.
This is apparent when you look into their various revenue streams, and this series of graphics by Truman Du provides a revenue breakdown of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.
How Big Tech Companies Generate Revenue
So how does each big tech firm make money? Let’s explore using data from each company’s June 2022 quarterly income statements.
View the full-size infographic
In Q2 2022, about 72% of Alphabet’s revenue came from search advertising. This makes sense considering Google and YouTube get a lot of eyeballs. Google dominates the search market—about 90% of all internet searches are done on Google platforms.
View the full-size infographic
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amazon’s biggest revenue driver is e-commerce. However, as the graphic above shows, the costs of e-commerce are so steep, that it actually reported a net loss in Q2 2022.
As it often is, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the company’s main profit-earner this quarter.
View the full-size infographic
Apple’s biggest revenue driver is consumer electronics sales, particularly from the iPhone which accounts for nearly half of overall revenue. iPhones are particularly popular in the U.S., where they make up around 50% of smartphone sales across the country.
Besides devices, services like Apple Music, Apple Pay, and Apple TV+ also generate revenue for the company. But in Q2 2022, Apple’s services branch accounted for only 24% of the company’s overall revenue.
View the full-size infographic
Microsoft has a fairly even split between its various revenue sources, but similarly to Amazon its biggest revenue driver is its cloud services platform, Azure.
After AWS, Azure is the second largest cloud server in the world, capturing 21% of the global cloud infrastructure market.
Animation: The Most Popular Websites by Web Traffic (1993-2022)
This video shows the evolution of the internet, highlighting the most popular websites from 1993 until 2022.
The Most Popular Websites Since 1993
Over the last three decades, the internet has grown at a mind-bending pace.
In 1993, there were fewer than 200 websites available on the World Wide Web. Fast forward to 2022, and that figure has grown to 2 billion.
This animated graphic by James Eagle provides a historical look at the evolution of the internet, showing the most popular websites over the years from 1993 to 2022.
The 90s to Early 2000s: Dial-Up Internet
It was possible to go on the proto-internet as early as the 1970s, but the more user-centric and widely accessible version we think of today didn’t really materialize until the early 1990s using dial-up modems.
Dial-up gave users access to the web through a modem that was connected to an active telephone line. There were several different portals in the 1990s for internet use, such as Prodigy and CompuServe, but AOL quickly became the most popular.
AOL held its top spot as the most visited website for nearly a decade. By June 2000, the online portal was getting over 400 million monthly visits. For context, there were about 413 million internet users around the world at that time.
|Rank||Website||Monthly Visits (May 2000)|
But when broadband internet hit the market and made dial-up obsolete, AOL lost its footing, and a new website took the top spot—Yahoo.
The Mid 2000s: Yahoo vs. Google
Founded in 1994, Yahoo started off as a web directory that was originally called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.”
When the company started to pick up steam, its name changed to Yahoo, which became a backronym that stands for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.”
Yahoo grew fast and by the early 2000s, it became the most popular website on the internet. It held its top spot for several years—by April 2004, Yahoo was receiving 5.6 billion monthly visits.
|Rank||Website||Monthly Visits (April 2004)|
But Google was close on its heels. Founded in 1998, Google started out as a simpler and more efficient search engine, and the website quickly gained traction.
Funny enough, Google was actually Yahoo’s default search engine in the early 2000s until Yahoo dropped Google so it could use its own search engine technology in 2004.
For the next few years, Google and Yahoo competed fiercely, and both names took turns at the top of the most popular websites list. Then, in the 2010s, Yahoo’s trajectory started to head south after a series of missed opportunities and unsuccessful moves.
This cemented Google’s place at the top, and the website is still the most popular website as of January 2022.
The Late 2000s, Early 2010s: Social Media Enters the Chat
While Google has held its spot at the top for nearly two decades, it’s worth highlighting the emergence of social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook.
YouTube and Facebook certainly weren’t the first social media platforms to gain traction. MySpace had a successful run back in 2007—at one point, it was the third most popular website on the World Wide Web.
|Rank||Website||Monthly Visits (Jan 2007)|
But YouTube and Facebook marked a new era for social media platforms, partly because of their impeccable timing. Both platforms entered the scene around the same time that smartphone innovations were turning the mobile phone industry on its head. The iPhone’s design, and the introduction of the App store in 2008, made it easier than ever to access the internet via your mobile device.
As of January 2022, YouTube and Facebook are still the second and third most visited websites on the internet.
The 2020s: Google is Now Synonymous With the Internet
Google is the leading search engine by far, making up about 90% of all web, mobile, and in-app searches.
What will the most popular websites be in a few years? Will Google continue to hold the top spot? There are no signs of the internet giant slowing down anytime soon, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that things change. And no one should get too comfortable at the top.
Money4 weeks ago
Mapped: The Wealthiest Billionaire in Each U.S. State in 2022
Money3 weeks ago
Charting the Relationship Between Wealth and Happiness, by Country
Money2 weeks ago
Mapped: The World’s Billionaire Population, by Country
Money3 weeks ago
Mapped: A Snapshot of Wealth in Africa
Water2 weeks ago
Mapped: Countries With the Highest Flood Risk
Markets4 weeks ago
Ranked: The Most Popular Fast Food Brands in America
Politics2 weeks ago
Mapped: Which Countries Still Have a Monarchy?
Markets6 days ago
The Biggest Tech Talent Hubs in the U.S. and Canada