When Reshma Shetty PhD '08 came to MIT in 2002 to pursue a doctorate in applied biology, she was unsure of her path after completing her studies. That quickly changed when she began working with then-professor Tom Knight '69, SM '79, PhD '83. Knight was researching a new field, synthetic biology, which combined engineering expertise with biology. “I fell in love with the idea,” Shetty remembers.
Shetty and Knight focused on understanding, reverse engineering, and rebuilding simple organisms using genetic engineering techniques. As she became immersed in the synthetic biology, Shetty began thinking of starting a company based on what she learned, a common path for many researchers. “Most times at MIT you start with a particular technology in your lab and then you spin it out and start your own company,” she says.
Only Shetty wasn’t sure what that technology would be, so instead of focusing on the tech, she decided her company would focus on the mission. The mission? To make biology easier. Shetty launched Ginkgo Bioworks in 2008 along with Austin Che SM '04, PhD '08; Jason Kelly '03, PhD '08; and Barry Canton PhD '08.
Today, Ginkgo Bioworks uses the technology Shetty learned from synthetic biology and Knight—who later signed on as a cofounder—to build custom organisms that create sweeteners, certain flavors, and scents used by manufacturers. “We realized there was a lot of demand for cultured ingredients, so we began focusing on that,” she says.
Companies interested in cultured ingredients from custom organisms come to Ginkgo Bioworks with a request, like adjusting the flavor of a specific sweetener. Ginkgo Bioworks then builds a genetic sequence to reflect that change and stitches together DNA fragments to create the new flavor. This almost-finished product is then transferred to yeast, where it will be cultured, and sent off to the buyer. The yeast continues to create the new, custom sweetener much like yeast converts sugar into alcohol to make beer. Shetty says large companies around the globe are using these cultured ingredients.
But as Ginkgo Bioworks catalog of custom organisms grows, so does public interest in what is in products and their origin. How does Shetty deal with her modified product in a world sometimes leery of GMOs? Easily, she says. “We try to be very transparent about what we’re doing and demonstrate that we’re passionate about biology,” she says. “We’re not trying to hide the fact that we’re changing biology, we’re front and center.”