By: Dror Berman and Caleb Appleton
Biology is computation. It operates on the digital alphabet of biochemistry, which is quite a bit more complicated than binary, hex, or even Haskell. Watson and Crick deciphered the code that is DNA, a linear polymer written in base-4 as permutations of nucleic acids. It was not long thereafter that Watson then used this knowledge to unlock the secrets of proteins by understanding that triplets of these bases served as the code to direct the assembly of complex proteins. Understanding that biology at its core was a code, these 64 simple repeats were aptly named codons.
But what kind of code could explain the massive complexity of an entire cell, even the simplest of organisms? If we understand the source code, surely we can understand the program? Years of time and billions of dollars of capital were poured into reading and mapping the source code of nature.
Eventually focus evolved beyond purely understanding the code to debugging it. Was it possible to move from read-only to write? Could scientists, engineers, doctors and others hack this code to program biology to behave in a desired manner? Overnight, the fields of synthetic and computational biology were born. They promised the possibility of curing all ailments, designing materials to suit every use case and a milieu of other opportunities. Suddenly a race was off to further breakdown this code and understand its implications.
Massive molecular libraries began to take shape, computer aided drug design became a mainstay of lead development and optimization. Genomic editing and gene therapy technologies became conversation starters thrown around at dinner parties: “well CRISPR is the answer to that problem.” Yet the pace and volume at which therapeutics have been brought to market has crept slower as time progressed. Biology may be computation, but it is much more complex than the thousand of lines of code that power your favorite app or govern your operating system.
No matter how much cells, and at a higher level organisms, might resemble tiny computers guided by the source code of biology, the analogy is inexact: cells run programs, but they are not programmed. Let’s face it, millennia of evolution and natural selection has added a layer of complexity that can be tricky at best and impossible to overcome at worst.
What if there was a way to circumvent this complexity? Is it possible to take the essence of the code and reprogram it in a way nature had not intended? Today, we are excited to announce an investment in a group doing just that — GRO Biosciences (GRObio) — a deal we co-led with our friends at Digitalis. GRObio has solidified the transition from read to write; GRObio has hacked biology to create a highly modified organism with only 63, not 64, of those simple repeats called codons. By freeing a codon, GRObio has begun to define the art of the possible in synthetic biology.
Not only has GRObio built a groundbreaking technical solution and platform, they have also built an incredible team. United by the common thread of George Church, a GRObio co-founder and the father of synthetic biology, a world-class team of scientists sit at the helm of GRObio. Dan Mandell, Christopher Gregg, and Ben Stranges have taken the culmination of over two-decades of work by the Church lab at Harvard to create GRObio. GRObio’s first application of this watershed technology will be to create new biologics and biobetters with enhanced properties and clinical efficacy. It is not hard to imagine the far-reaching implications when entrepreneurs and scientists start to throw the accepted rules of biology out the window.
We are thrilled to be part of this journey with GRObio. Moreover, we also recognize that we are still in the nascent days of truly transformational applications of synthetic and computational biology. We look forward to meeting and partnering with more enthusiastic and capable teams looking to hack the code that underlies biology to reprogram organisms, reprogram advanced materials, and ultimately reprogram life as we know it.