Synthetic biology is revolutionising how we approach pressing global issues. In the world of agriculture, many people are developing innovative technologies to tackle methane, one of the world’s most significant emissions, to save the climate and help our farmers.
Number 8 Bio is a synthetic biology company that is doing just that. By engineering microorganisms to prevent agricultural methane emissions, it is set on decarbonising agriculture. Since its launch in 2022, Number 8 Bio has already been recognised in the synthetic biology space, earning a nomination in the same year for the Positive Impact Award at the UNSW SynBio 10X Accelerator.
In this interview, we sat down with co-founders Dr Tom Williams and Dr Alex Carpenter, two experienced synthetic biologists with aspirations for the field. In this conversation, we discussed the history of synthetic biology, the urgency of climate change, and the exciting intersection of these topics within startup culture.
Tom started his career at the University of Waikato, completing his undergraduate degree in biochemistry followed by a master’s in microbiology. This was where he discovered synthetic biology and subsequently changed course. He completed his PhD at the University of Queensland, working on engineering yeast physiology and metabolism, and then continued on to a postdoctoral position at Macquarie University in 2015, working on the Yeast 2.0 Project. Since then, Tom has grown into a group leader working on synthetic carbon metabolism, synthetic genomes, biosensors, and more. He is now the co-founder and CEO of Number 8 Bio.
Alex did his undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland, initially studying biomedical science until his third year when he discovered metabolic engineering, which he had not realised existed before this. He then volunteered in the research field - including at Claudia Vickers’s lab - whilst building his interest in the field, reading papers on rational strain design and evolution-based metabolic engineering, including some written by Tom. Alex travelled to Sydney for his master’s in research and completed his PhD trying to use biosensors for directed evolution. He is now the co-founder and CSO of Number 8 Bio.
Although they both had worked in Claudia Vickers’s lab, the two met much later. Tom and Alex started thinking about Number 8 in 2019, and officially launched the company in mid-2022.
Did either of you have a key moment that sparked your interest in science?
“I actually have a really distinct memory of being in biology class in high school and turning to a particular page in the textbook, which described biotechnology,” Tom remembers. “So, it had all these inputs, molecular biology and microbiology, and fermentation, then all of these diagrammed outputs that were diverse; agriculture, medicine, and all sorts of things. That kind of piqued my interest at that point. So, yeah, from age 15, I've been basically planning to be in this field.”
In contrast, Alex landed on biology a bit later, after the common experience of disliking maths and chemistry in high school. Alex found the university environment to be more suited to him, with its learning being more self-directed. It was there that he got into evolution.
“I just really fell in love with sort of the innate capacity of evolution to do stuff. I mean, there's so many natural forces that are really destructive…I just thought it was really amazing, the way that evolution exists as this natural force which is inherently productive. I thought that's really rare as a thing in the universe, so maybe I should figure out how to make a job out of investigating that.”
How would you describe synthetic biology?
In the grand scheme of science, synthetic biology is a relatively new field, but that doesn’t stop it from being ambitious. Synthetic biology “emerged off the back of the genomics revolution and systems biology,” Tom explains, “it kind of reflects that in some ways, but it deals with more complex, elegant systems than any single gene ever could.”
In a phrase?
“Engineering life to do something new and useful, to understand it better.”
Alex, adding on, compares the new waves of synthetic biology to the Industrial Revolution.
“You've got a long period of time where people are pounding away on some molten metal on the anvil to make a couple of bespoke items. But then at some point, you hit this grey zone where you start getting different types of different metal things that you make start working together. And then the output of that is much greater than each individual metal part that you're making.”
Synthetic biology, in a way, is appearing from this scientific grey zone.
“We’ve had these tools for a while, and we’ve been able to make some cool stuff, but relatively simple stuff. I think of synthetic biology as this next iteration where we’re taking a lot of the simple stuff that we’ve been able to make, and trying to put it all together into something that’s a lot bigger than all the individual things by themselves.”
We’ve established that synthetic biology is a complex intersection of diverse fields, and Number 8 Bio’s work is no exception. To simplify a not-so-simple concept, what is Number 8 Bio, in a couple of sentences?
“We’re decarbonising agriculture, animal agriculture, using microbes,” says Tom. “On a more precise level, based on our first products, we’re stopping cows from making methane and saving farmers money.”
Alex adds on. “Number 8 Bio’s ambition is to shut off these emissions and allow farmers to continue doing their craft.”
Then, with all your combined experience in synthetic biology, what made you decide on this challenge, this approach? How did you get to Number 8 Bio?
“It’s a big, multifaceted thing”.
Tom came into synthetic biology with a unique context for the climate change issue. Growing up in a dairy farming region called the Waikato in New Zealand, he is well aware of agricultural methane emissions. Beyond that, Tom thinks that many people, with varying degrees of knowledge on the topic, may be unable or unwilling to make a change to veganism. However, climate change in agriculture remains a problem.
“Probably the pragmatic solution is to deal with these emissions from animals. So, in my mind, this is one of the biggest problems that remains unaddressed, and it's perfectly addressed by biology - in particular synthetic biology.”
Alex chimes in, “I think the only thing to add is why this product, why this time. A lot of it was actually due to seeing the research that came out of CSIRO around asparagopsis in seaweed several years ago. That's really effective at shutting off methane emissions. So, I guess from our perspective, because we work a lot with yeast, [we wondered] is that something that we could do in microorganisms?”
The immediate advantage of this approach was the scale at which yeast is already grown. With a challenge this time-dependent, Number 8 Bio could not wait for a solution that needed a decade of scaling and new technology.
In setting up and developing Number 8 Bio, have there been any unexpected challenges that, in hindsight, could have been avoided?
Alex points out their background in science, not business. The transition from science to startup had a lot of obstacles.
“Starting up this whole process and looking back, there are a number of smaller things along the way that you go, ‘Had I known what a good royalty deal might look like’...the amount of time that we devoted trying to negotiate around the fringes of bad deals.”
Company set-up is full of rules that are “basically unwritten anywhere”, Tom says.
"Scientifically, you know, science is science. Some things work, some things don't. But we've got a really, really good team in place. So, we're on track.”
You could argue that there is a lot of overlap between science skills and startup know-how, however there would be areas that are just not comparable. Was there a large adjustment curve from science to startups in terms of skills that you didn’t already have?
Tom’s biggest difference? PowerPoints.
Scientific presentation requires detail and reasoning, and you tend to always be there to explain your work. In contrast, “a startup pitch deck has to be a static PDF that's understandable when you're not there. That's a very stark difference.”
According to Alex, losing the urge to overshare science is the trick. There’s a limit to the level of detail necessary, and to someone’s understanding of the content without having specialist knowledge in the field.
It’s way more important for them to be able to understand the other logistics. “‘If we assume that you’ve got the science under control, tell me about everything else,” Alex says. “‘How are you going to get all of that set up so that you have the maximum chance of scientific success?’”
How have you seen the field of synthetic biology change?
Tom quickly adds the warning that it has been about seven years since his PhD.
“I spent 90% of my PhD doing molecular cloning one bit of DNA at a time, using restriction enzymes, and ligases. Gibson Assembly was a new thing. Now, it's completely feasible to chemically synthesise and outsource that DNA assembly to other companies, which is largely what we do as academics and at Number 8 Bio.”
Alex, drawing on his more recent PhD experience, explains the speed at which successful research gets picked up commercially is slower than you’d expect. Take the example of artificial gene circuits. Despite the large amount of successful research, Alex points out that there are not any major companies routinely using them commercially, despite the hypothetical outcomes.
“So, I guess, yes, that's something that I found interesting about the trends, is that even after a trend of research falls out of academic favour, it's not like it's done. You know, that the research is finished,” he says, referencing biosensors as another example. “It actually still takes quite some time after these proof-of-concept studies are done to actually make that useful in an industrial setting.”
The demands of academia mean that it can be hard to find time for science communication, especially when under pressure in the lab. So, if given the chance to speak to young scientists now, what message would you pass on?
“If you're in it, you've got to be all in”, Tom says. “You’ve got to go hard, it's really difficult. It's a long shot to make it. You've got to fully invest yourself to make it in science.”
Alex agrees. “I'd say it's probably the hardest thing that I've ever had to do, such a titanic amount of effort for such an extended period of time. But on the other hand, I couldn't imagine having done anything else.”
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome?
The answer is a definitive yes.
Tom reflects on three moments he’s made that have brought on this feeling for him. Firstly, starting his PhD in a field he had not studied before. Secondly, beginning his postdoctoral position. And, now, being the CEO of Number 8 Bio. As he puts it, “I’m rapidly sponging as much information as I can.”
Second-year PhD was Alex’s critical moment. “The results aren't coming out as fast as you want them to come out and maybe things aren't panning out exactly the way that you planned them, and looking around and seeing other people, they've got the data that they need. That can really affect you.”
But they both agree that it’s a normal feeling to have, and nothing to be ashamed of. Finding good mentors, pushing forward, and having the faith that it’ll work out is key.
Then what impact do you think synthetic biology is having on the world?
A good one, Tom thinks. He separates the impact into waves, each with varying degrees of success. First, aimed at biofuels, replacing chemicals from oils with “biologically produced equivalents”. A wave that failed, not due to science, but economics. “Oil is still too cheap. In the early 2010s there was a big push to make every petrochemical in yeast, but the unit economics never stacked up."
The second, still-relevant wave was the rise of platform technologies, with leaders like Ginkgo Bioworks and Zymergen.
And finally, the cresting wave, whose “impact on the average person is yet to be realised,” the shift towards sustainable food production. Tom thinks synthetic biology is naturally suited towards success in food, as it utilises the components of what food is: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, all parts of life. “Chemistry won't beat us there.”
Alex looks to the future impacts.
“I was going to say, like, a lot of ways I feel like we're right at the start of this whole process. There's so many areas of life that are untouched by highly complex synthetic biology approaches, which will get a bit sci-fi futuristic…There aren't genetic gene therapy treatments for life extension, but that's not outside the realm of maybe seeing the start of that within my lifetime, same thing with personalised medicines,” though Alex acknowledges the current roadblocks.
“So, to me, I see it more as we've just started, really, in the scheme of synthetic biology and where we could go with it.”
Then a broad question to finish on, what impact do you hope to have on the world?
Tom is a self-described humanity optimist.
“I think if we play our cards right, we can get through climate change, we can stabilise our population and lift everyone on Earth into the middle class, then we can populate and mine the solar system and then eventually beyond and become an interstellar civilization that lasts for millions of years. If I can play a tiny role in helping that happen by getting us through this next 50 to 100 years, with climate change and food security, then, even in some small way that it'd be pretty nice.”
Alex claims that he doesn’t have as much detail in his roadmap to humanity’s future.
“But I think the sentiment is much the same, which is that I just want to be helpful if that's possible. And if that means that we can reduce methane emissions and allow farmers to continue farming…that's what I'd like to do.”
Any closing thoughts?
Tom enjoys science.
“Actually, engineering life is really fun. If a young person is considering getting into this, you'll definitely get a kick. The first time you do it. It's worn off for me, unfortunately,” he adds jokingly. “But you know, the first few times.”
”I think the infancy of doing a lot of this stuff is both a blessing and a curse,” Alex adds, comparing it to the invention of planes. There’s so much potential in what remains unknown. How many wings? Will eight wings work? What’s the best model?
“We haven't checked, let's give it a try. At least in the biological context, there’s not a lot of wrong answers. I mean, there are a lot of wrong answers, but you don't know that they're wrong answers until you've tried.“
Tom, Alex, and the team at Number 8 Bio, are continuing with exciting research into microbe-based methane mitigation strategies. They can be contacted on Twitter at @BioNumber8, @Dr_Tom_Williams, and @SynCarpentry.
Author: Jade Sorenson
Jade has a passion for using scientific communication to address current issues relating to public health and climate change. She is currently studying Global Challenges at Monash University and interning at Number 8 Bio. With a strong interest in microbiology and its potential to make changes in public health, climate change, and particularly the ecosystems of Antarctica, she aspires to accelerate advances in these fields and make a meaningful impact by helping to build a more sustainable future.
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