In Boston, Massachusetts on May 10, 2016, a group of biomedical researchers gathered to discuss founding a program with the goal of synthesizing a whole human genome. Some members of the group released a full proposal outlining their plan as well as the resulting technological advances, dubbing the project HGP-Write (as opposed to the original Human Genome Project, which “read” the human genome). Though this proposal generated significant controversy and is still very much in the planning stages, multiple investment opportunities in the field of synthetic biology will be created through both the technologies required for and scientific advancements resulting from the synthesis of the human genome.
We can begin to examine the potential impact of HGP-Write by considering that of its predecessor, the Human Genome Project. The Battelle group produced a report detailing the economic benefits of the Human Genome Project. They found that the government investment of $5.6 billion produced an economic return of $796 billion, returning 141 dollars of output for every dollar of input. This economic return came as a result of both of the advances in sequencing that arose from the need to sequence at a massive scale and of the expansion in the field of genomics that was facilitated by access to the full human genome sequence. Investment opportunities that will result from the HGP-Write project will follow this same pattern: technologies developed due to the needs of the project and the technologies enabled by the completed project. The HGP-Write proposal does not give an estimate of the total costs, but calls for an initial capital outlay of $100 million dollars. Using the same 1:141 economic input to output ratio as the Human Genome Project yields a prediction of $14 billion in expected economic gain that entrepreneurs and investors can capture.
For HGP-Write, the needed technology is inexpensive, large-scale DNA synthesis. The human genome is approximately 3 billion base pairs long and the 2015 market for DNA synthesis was roughly 1 billion base pairs at $0.10 per base pair. If this project is to proceed and not disrupt biotechnology around the globe, the DNA synthesis market will need to massively expand its capacity and lower its cost. This presents an opportunity for synthesis companies developing technologies that can produce long DNA strands inexpensively, such as companies like Twist Bioscience, Synthetic Genomics, and Gen9. In addition, the groups working on the project will need software tools to design and carry out the synthesis of genome-scale constructs. Autodesk understands this and has already pledged $250,000 towards the project, but other BioCAD companies like TeselaGen have the ability to expand their market size as well.
The ability to design and synthesize long stretches of DNA inexpensively enables researchers to easily order whole custom genes or chromosomes for their systems of interest, enabling the the field of synthetic biology to expand even further. Companies in industrial biology, like Genomatica, Ginkgo Bioworks, and Zymergen, could design and test combinatorial libraries of all possible metabolic pathways for their target molecule, thus harnessing the vast sequence space derived from nature to find the most efficient construct. Another field that will benefit from whole chromosome design is that of regenerative medicine, as researchers seek to grow organs or organoid cell cultures with specific properties, like improved immune response. If the HGP-Write project goes forward and its pilot goals are achieved, investors should keep in mind the applications that will be made possible by its completion when developing their investment theses. It is likely that the enabled applications will make up the majority of the economic gain from the project.
There are significant ethical issues that will need to be settled before the HGP-Write program moves forward, but their goal of incentivizing the fast, cheap, and accurate construction of large DNA constructs has the potential to produce significant economic gains both from the technologies developed to accomplish the goal and from the technologies enabled through the accomplishment of the goal.