Ginkgo Bioworks is using its synthetic biology platform in the fight against the pandemic. We asked Jason Kelly, CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks, to update us on Concentric, a program that offers COVID-19 testing at scale to support schools and businesses in their reopening strategies and provides end-to-end, on-site testing services for organizations that seek to make testing available to their communities.

1. What is synthetic biology and what does Ginkgo do?

Synthetic biology is based on the fact that biology runs on digital code—the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs of DNA instead of 1’s and 0’s. Ginkgo programs DNA to engineer cells that can do extraordinary things: bacteria that can treat rare metabolic diseases from inside a patient’s gut, microbes that can produce valuable medicines, bacteria that provide fertilizer to crops, or consume dangerous pollutants in the environment. We’ve built a flexible platform that enables our partners, whether they are new start-ups or industry incumbents, to leverage biology to make an impact.

2. Can you describe the breadth of synthetic biology, including Concentric, Ginkgo’s work dedicated to COVID-19?

The incredible diversity and power of biology means that synthetic biology can impact any industry that deals in physical goods, from agriculture to textiles, cosmetics, even consumer electronics. Synthetic biology can also have a huge impact on health and medicine, and it is playing a large role in the response to COVID-19.

Concentric is our contribution to the fight against the pandemic. Over the past few months, we have worked with public health departments to sequence samples of virus from patients in order to assist in epidemiological tracking. We have synthesized hundreds of viral gene sequences and made them freely available for researchers. We have supported Moderna’s efforts in manufacturing nucleic acid vaccines, as well as worked to develop a diagnostic using next-generation sequencing to provide an end-to-end testing service for organizations.

3. Does synthetic biology apply to both diagnostics as well as medicines or vaccines for COVID-19?

The tools we have built to program biology include powerful automation and the ability to read billions of letters of DNA code. Those tools can readily be repurposed to develop diagnostics at large scale, as well as for optimizing and manufacturing medicines and vaccines.

4. What is the most important thing you learned about COVID-19 in the past 6 months?

COVID has exposed so many of the cracks in our health systems, and has shown the need not just for better health security and technologies that can address the pandemic—disease monitoring and surveillance, diagnostics, novel therapeutics, and vaccines that can all be deployed quickly as soon as a new epidemic arises—but also more equity, care, and justice. Developing such technologies indeed requires us to care about how our platform is used, to include perspectives of those who have been historically excluded, and to challenge ourselves to rethink what a return to “normal” should look like.