This Startup Is Making Peach Smells From Yeast

A company in Boston is trying to use biology to make everything from perfume ingredients to, perhaps someday, iPhone screens.

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When Jason Kelly looks at a seed, he sees a factory. With the right ingredients, a seed can manufacture stems, leaves and flowers. His company Ginkgo Bioworks takes it a step further: If you took other living things and tweaked their DNA, what could those factories build?

The Boston-based company is starting small. It modifies the genes of microbes like yeast so that they produce a desirable byproduct—say, a compound that smells like a peach—for clients in the flavor and fragrance industries. Once the yeast's DNA has been changed to produce a particular scent, the strains can be brewed like beer, and the smell can be extracted and bottled.

"It’s manufacturing without factories," Kelly said. "Imagine you made the first iPhone, and it just went off and made copies of itself."

Kelly and his co-founders—a team of Ph.D. graduates from MIT, plus their professor—dream of a future where biology can be used to manufacture everything from electronics to artificial flavors and scents generated directly from the bacteria on your skin. We explore that heady future in this month's episode of Ventures, a video series from Bloomberg Technology.

For now, Ginkgo is focused on fruity smells. It works with industry clients to develop particular variants of yeast and aims to collect a licensing fee when the fragrances produced by those custom microbes end up in consumer's hands.

Follow the entire Ventures video series here. 

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