July 19, 2024

When researchers revealed the results of a study on the prevalence of microplastics in human placentas earlier this year, the findings were profoundly disturbing. Researchers analysed 62 placental tissue samples — and found microplastics in all of them

In the words of the lead author of the study, “If we are seeing effects on placentas, then all mammalian life on this planet could be impacted.”

The world desperately needs to quit its addiction to fossil-based fuels and other fossil-based chemicals, for the sake of both planetary and human health (which are inextricably linked). This is where synthetic biology, or synbio, could have a significant part to play. 

Imagine a world where we could replace every single harmful synthetic chemical and fossil-based plastic with entirely natural and biodegradable compounds. This would translate to less loss of biodiversity, fewer greenhouse gas emissions — and fewer microplastics floating around in our bloodstreams. Companies like FabricNano are trying to make this a reality.

The beauty of biology

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Many startup founders want to believe that they are on to the next big thing in tech. (I have lost count of all the “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking” promises in press releases, mostly with little regard for the actual definitions of the words.)

But every now and then, there are startups that could actually boast such descriptions of their technology. FabricNano not only wants to help us consciously decouple from our toxic relationship to plastics, but transform the chemical industry as a whole — one cell-free biobased enzyme at a time. 

“If you walk into a forest, you see trees — there’s bark, there’s leaves, there’s all these materials. When you look at your own body, you see soft skin, you see delicate hair, but also very hard nails. All of these materials come from biology, and are manufactured from chemicals,” Grant Aarons, FabricNano’s founder and CEO, tells TNW. 

Getting rid of the biotech ‘factories’

The chemicals Aarons refers to are made in cells — human skin cells, plant cells, etc. The materials they produce are the result of a transformation of an input chemical to a different chemical, via proteins inside of the cell.

The first version of synthetic biology and biomanufacturing was getting cells like yeast to take sugar and instead of producing alcohol on the other side, changing some of the proteins inside so that they take the sugar and they make a plastic instead.

Cell-based biomanufacturing uses living cells as factories to produce biologically active products, for instance pharmaceuticals, chemicals, enzymes, and other biomolecules. While a cornerstone of the biotech industry, it is susceptible to contamination, and requires precise control of growth conditions to ensure cell health, productivity, and genetic stability. 

Photo of Grant Aarons sitting on a bench outside talking to two people