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Why the Pentagon is paying nearly $2 million for a custom-designed bacteria

A lab researcher at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.
Photo: Richard TK Hawke | Ginkgo Bioworks
A lab researcher at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.

Not all start-ups are built on the internet.

Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, for one, is creating new bacteria, and is now working on a vaccine to protect people from the "bad" bacteria that causes ailments like antibiotic-resistant infections and traveler's diarrhea.

An illness like Traveler's diarrhea might be just a pesky annoyance to some, but to the U.S. Department of Defense it's a significant problem. It can severely hamper soldiers' field operations, and thus the DOD has given Ginko $1.75 million to make a vaccine, said Patrick Boyle, head of design at Ginkgo Bioworks.

"You take 100,000 people and move them to new country, a significant percentage of that group will get sick with traveler's diarrhea," said Boyle. "That happens to be a disease that is a disruption of your gut microbiome by bad bacteria."

Ginkgo's probiotic vaccine — currently in the very early stages of development — will vaccinate bacteria that live in the human gut, which houses more than a trillion organisms. In doing so, it will provide immunity against diseases and ailments not covered by traditional vaccines. (Traditional vaccines address the immune system.)

Within the next year, the company will evaluate whether it has the right proof of concept to begin testing whether it would work in mice, for example.

The DOD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has given Ginkgo a total of $5 million for various projects. The company, which is a CNBC 2016 Disruptor 50, has also gotten grants from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the Small Business Innovation Research program. Private investors, who have given the company $154 million, include Allen & Co., Baillie Gifford and Cascade Investment Group.

A lab researcher at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.
Photo: Richard TK Hawke | Ginkgo Bioworks
A lab researcher at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.

"A lot of the hard basic biology that we are doing as far as this DARPA work, helps us to find better ways to engineer microbes in general," said Boyle. "All the markets we are in and looking at are markets that are accessed by engineering microbes to do something."

Gingko also has commercial customers, including French fragrance maker Robertet, and Japanese flavor company Ajinomoto. Other partnerships cover cosmetics, nutritional ingredients, beverage, agriculture and specialty enzymes. The company plans to announce new partnerships by early September.

"What we are really interested [in] is making the process of engineering microbes more predictable," he said. "That's why we get excited about these very hard, different types of projects — it allows us to discover some fundamental biology that helps us make that product more predictable."

For example, in developing a very precise bacterial vaccine, Ginkgo is also developing ways to create very precise bacterial sensors, said Boyle. Electronic devices, like smartphones and smartwatches, rely on sensors to do things like track the number of stairs the user has climbed or monitor heart rate.

Employees convene on couches at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.
Photo: Richard TK Hawke | Ginkgo Bioworks
Employees convene on couches at the Gingko Bioworks lab in Boston.

"Biological sensors are likely to add capabilities to the sensors that are embedded in a lot of the electronic devices," said Boyle. "To sense and respond to changes in your environment."

As such, a more sophisticated smartphone of the future could incorporate biological sensors to deliver new smart services and features.

Bioremediation — the introduction of microorganisms to clean up pollutants — is another area of opportunity, said Boyle. Though using bacteria to clean up toxic soil sounds very different than delivering a vaccine, biologically, the process happens to use many of the same mechanisms, said Boyle.

For some people, the idea of engineering microbes to produce vaccines or synthetic fragrances and flavors raises a lot of questions. The addition of military funding may further heighten fears around the applications of such technology. As such, consumers and stakeholders of the products Ginkgo is creating deserve to be involved in the discussion about how they should be designed and used, said Boyle.

"We try to be as open as possible about the products that we are working on and considering because we think that process is important," he said. "We want people to understand the products that we're making."