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Cell-Free Systems for Faster, More Economical Bioprocessing

Company Name: Synvitrobio, Inc.
Program Office:  Bioenergy
Location: San Francisco, CA
Email: Zachary Sun, Co-founder & CEO;
Award Amount: $200,000
Project Term: 12 months
Project Status: Active
Participating Lab(s): Oak Ridge National Laboratory


Transforming renewable biomass to higher-order chemicals is critical to securing our nation's energy security and to manufacturing materials in a sustainable manner. Bioconversion processes are central to these efforts, but require lengthy design-build-test cycles to produce a single product. For example, mevalonate is a starting chemical for 40,000 other molecules, including isoprene, farnesene, and high-density jet fuels, with total market values on the order of $5 billion a year. However, current fuel yields (at $5-10 per gallon) preclude commercial viability. Additionally, research and development (R&D) time is intractably long.

Synvitrobio is developing cell-free systems as rapid prototyping environments, bypassing the restrictions of cellular engineering and enabling a minimum tenfold reduction in R&D time by accelerating design-build-test cycles so that they only require hours, rather than weeks, to complete. This novel approach to engineering microbes utilizes cell-free prototyping systems to mirror other non-biological engineering fields. 

A key technical obstacle in employing cell-free prototyping systems has been the imprecise molecular definition of the cell-free system and the original host; this can result in lower energy-conversion efficiency and product yield. Through this SBV Pilot, Synvitrobio will leverage Oak Ridge National Laboratory's analytical technology capabilities to reveal the molecular components involved in metabolic conversions and to identify the molecular fate of feedstocks and pathways for their effective utilization.  


Synvitrobio is developing cell-free systems as rapid prototyping environments, enabling the rapid optimization of biocatalyzed pathways and their components. This technology platform will allow exploration of new pathways for producing known and new products without the confounding effects of cellular growth rates or product toxicity that plague conventional cell-based systems. The Synvitro technology will permit the screening of thousands of conditions, accelerate the design-build-test cycle, and lead to cost-effective production of fuels and specialty chemicals.



Economic use of renewable biomass depends on improved utilization of feedstocks. Lignin comprises 15 percent to 30 percent of the weight of lignocellulose, a paper production byproduct. Currently, only 2 percent of lignin is being used to produce value-added chemicals. Better understanding of lignin valorization to commodity chemicals will provide critical technical breakthroughs and better utilization of renewable feedstock.


Numerous pharmaceuticals are derived from natural products. The development costs are prohibitive, and the potential of a promising drug candidate is slow to realize. Synvitrobio's rapid prototyping environment can cut the time and cost associated with drug development.


Biologically derived fuels and chemicals can dramatically reduce dependencies on petroleum products, and in the process reduce environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.

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