NewCo Shift Forum
The CEO of Twist Bioscience on why writable DNA will change just about everything
Continuing our exploration of health-related companies that are fundamentally shifting our understanding of the industry, meet Emily Leproust, the Parisian founder of Twist Bioscience. An industrial chemist with a PhD in bioscience, Leproust and her team are reimagining industrial processes using nature’s most powerful mechanisms. The results are stunning: replacements for oil-based products, spider silk at scale, and a new kind of digital storage that lasts for generations. Below is Leproust’s presentation at NewCo Shift Forum, and a transcript, edited for clarity.
Emily Leproust: I learned English in Texas, but I didn’t pick up the accent.
What we do at Twist is, we build DNA. Twist is a three-and-a-half years old company. We have offices in San Francisco and Tel Aviv, and we’ve raised $134 million so far. What we do is we write DNA from scratch. We are building the print DNA button. I won’t tell you how we do it, but we just make DNA faster, cheaper, higher quality, and faster than anybody else.
What I’ll talk about is what people use DNA for. What they do is they use the engineering principle of design-build-test. They design a number of mutations. Someone has to build that DNA, that’s going to be Twist. Then they can do the test to find the genes that make what they want to achieve.
The market for DNA is big. It’s a billion-dollar market. There are people that buy DNA. There are people that make DNA. Our ambition is that, within a few years, everybody will be buying from Twist.
The rest of the talk, I’ll talk about what’s more important. What can you do with DNA? DNA will be able to help solve some of the challenges that we have for humanity and the planet.
The first one is solving hunger. The population is increasing, and the amount of land available to grow food is shrinking. We need to make more food with less land. We can argue whether we like GMO or not, but humans have been modifying plants for thousands of year. On the top right, you can see how corn has evolved in the last 7,000 years.
An exciting application of DNA is moving the nitrogen fixation cycle from fungi into plants, such that you’ll have plants that are self-fertilizing. You won’t need to apply fertilizer, which actually are one-third the cost of food and burn three percent of the world’s oil every year. You may think three percent is not a lot, but three percent of billions of barrels is a lot. Thanks to DNA that will be gone.
Another opportunity we’ve seen is to add nutrition to food. For instance, there are almost a million children that don’t have enough vitamin A in their diet, but you can add that gene into rice so that people have better nutrition.
Another opportunity for DNA is of course to solve diseases. We know that drugs are needed to solve known diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, but also new threats coming on from antibacterial-resistant bacteria.
Now we see actually people dying from paper cuts. We are going back to world pre-penicillin, where we don’t have any defense against some bacteria. DNA can help. There is an example of a company called Amyris, and they developed a fermentation way to make a life-saving drug against malaria in three months in the lab, instead of waiting almost a year to make that chemical from plants.
Another opportunity for DNA is, once you know the mutation that may kill you with cancer, a huge trend in healthcare right now is to reprogram your own cell, your own immune system, to go kill your own cancer. The goal is to, over time, turn cancer into a chronic disease after you’ve been able to diagnose it.
Moving on to another challenge is sustainability. We use a lot of chemicals, materials, energy, and all of those come from finite resources like coal or oil. At least finite, not on the geological time frame, but on the human time scale.
Actually everything we touch in our daily life comes from oil, and the opportunity that we have is to take bio factories like yeast, e-coli, and algae, and reprogram those to take non-finite resources, like the sun and biomass, and turn those into the same chemicals we use every day.
As an example, I’ll take the Sonora carpet. You can go buy carpet today made by DuPont, where the nylon in the carpet was made from corn stalk instead of oil. That uses less energy, and it’s actually taking carbon from the air instead of taking carbon from the ground to make a chemical.
The next step, after replacing current chemicals, is to move people towards new materials that would be impossible before. One of those examples is spider silk. You cannot farm spiders. You’d take a million spiders, put them in a cage, and after one week you have one spider. They kill each other.
What you can do is you can take the genes of spider, and put it in yeast, and yeast will produce spider silk that you can then produce on an industrial scale. Today you can buy shoes that were made from spider silk, you can buy mountain jackets, and you get new performance from a material that you could never get from oil.
The last thing that DNA can help with is the data explosion. There is more and more data being used. You have data on your phone, in the cloud. That’s the modern way, but in the past you had data on floppy disk and tapes. I can give you a challenge. Find a floppy disk in your garage. There is no way you can get the data out. That data is gone.
What nature has done is, nature has chosen DNA as the storage of data, and DNA is permanent. You can find mammoth DNA 20,000 years old in the ground and you can sequence it and the data is there.
The opportunity is we’ll be able to take zeroes and ones and convert them to ACGT. We’ll make that DNA that will be stable for years, decades, centuries. When you need it, you can just sequence it back and retrieve it.
DNA, besides being permanent, is so dense that you could fit the entire Internet in a shoe box and it uses no energy to store. At Twist, we have a collaboration with Microsoft. It’s not every day you sell DNA to Microsoft, but we sold them 10 million oligos, and 100 percent of the bytes that they encoded they were able to recover.
To summarize, we have only one planet. Someday we’ll be able to go to Mars, but in the mean time we have to take care of it, and DNA is there to help with health, sustainability, and data storage. Thank you.