SB 7.0 Conference: Global Strides in Synthetic Biology

SB 7.0 Turnout was significant

The Seventh International Meeting on Synthetic Biology held from 13 – 16th of June at the National University of Singapore concluded recently. Its objective was to unite the different international synthetic biology communities to come together to share fresh perspectives on key topics and challenges faced by Synthetic Biology as a field.

SB 7.0 opened with NUS Provost Professor Tan Eng Chye’s speech which highlighted the rapid advancement of synthetic biology, as well as its contributions to many facets of the economy such as agriculture, biomanufacturing, medicine, and fashion. From there on, SB 7.0 was full steam ahead.

Professor Tan Eng Chye, Provost NUS. Photo credit: NUS SynCTI

Synthetic Biology in Public Policy

To kick-start the discussion on the government’s role in the advancement of synthetic biology,  Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for National Development Mr Desmond Lee addressed SB 7.0 about the Singapore government’s contribution to research as well as synthetic biology on a whole.

Mr Lee reported that $19 billion was pledged to research till 2020, with $34 million going into just synthetic biology. Mr Lee’s sentiment was later echoed by Professor Low Teck Seng of Singapore’s National Research Foundation, who also added that synthetic biology is potentially a very useful tool that could be used to tackle one of Singapore’s central challenges of water scarcity, as well as other medical challenges.

Singapore’s Minister (Prime Minister’s Office) Desmond Lee. Photo credit: NUS SynCTI

Representatives from various countries also chimed in by describing their own national policies as well as initiatives to attract researchers to their respective countries, as well as long-term strategies to advance synthetic biology in their respective countries and companies. Biological defense strategies and measures were also discussed over the course of SB 7.0.

Synthetic Biology as an Industry

The discussion on industry’s relationship with synthetic biology was spearheaded by Dr Randal J. Kirk of Interexon. Rather than preaching to the choir about the visions, hopes and dreams of synthetic biology, Dr Kirk opted instead to give an elaborate rundown on the technical capabilities of Interexon in the hopes of inspiring attendees with what already is rather than dreaming about what could be. The company’s portfolio was very comprehensive, and it definitely served to inspire, even if Dr Kirk momentarily lamented about the problems of public and governmental perception towards synthetic biology.

Randal J. Kirk of Intrexon. Photo credit: NUS SynCTI

There were also numerous synthetic Biology start-ups that gave their respective presentations. While many were understandably tight-lipped about the processes that were at the core of their companies’ operations, it was heartening to see that in the long-term, companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks were looking at making their sequence search platform, open access for mutually beneficial gains! One of the companies, Arzeda has even managed to synthesize microbes that have the ability to excrete plexiglass!

Synthetic Biology as a Scientific Endeavour

As is the case with all scientific conferences, a great deal of boundary-pushing discoveries were presented. Research ranged from the fundamental, such as Professor Marileen Dogterom who wishes to understand the mechanism behind cellular construction in an attempt to replicate the process, to those with a more engineering slant, such as Dr Tobias Erb. He wants to construct novel enzymes that could be a part of novel metabolic pathways, leading to creation of useful carbon compounds.

Other presentations highlighted the use of synthetic biology as a tool in conservation and biodiversity research; Dr Madhu Rao questioned if synthetic biology can be used to re-introduce biodiversity, while other groups such as Dr Frank Rheindt’s Avian Evolution Lab use synthetic biology techniques to study ancient DNA sources.

The GP Write project also took center stage during SB 7.0. While synthetic biology has made amazing leaps in the decades of its existence, many of the speakers echoed each others’ sentiment of seeking to understand the genome better. A couple have been quoted saying:

if you can’t create something then you don’t really understand it at all

The GP Write project has massive challenges ahead of it ranging from technical and funding challenges to that of marking out different turfs (as researchers want the assurance that no one else would attempt to encroach upon their group’s work).

The Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (Sc2.0) also held their 6th Annual General Meeting on the Saturday of the conference week, and a number of those involved in the project gave presentations at SB 7.0. The objective of the project is to eventually be able to design a synthetic genome based on S. cerevisiae (yeast), in the hopes of answering questions related to chromosomal properties, distinctions between prokaryotes and eukaryotes and the function of RNA splicing, among many others.

Poster presentations at SB 7.0. Photo credit: NUS SynCTI

Synthetic Biology as a Collaborative Effort

While the advancements made in synthetic biology that was presented at the conference were indeed impressive, there was also a strong sentiment among a significant number of speakers who wished to advance the field by enabling collaboration.

Three speakers in the “Learning By Sharing” segment of the conference spoke about legal concerns about genome patents and their efforts to improve the legal landscape, be it through easier navigation of the patent landscape or providing legal tools that enable individuals and organizations to share their materials on an open basis. Democratizing educational tools to enable anyone to learn about synthetic biology was a common theme as well.

Other speakers spoke of using competition as a method for collaboration. The long-running iGEM competition emphasizes the merits of competition to drive teams forward to innovate, and Dr. Faisal Khan of CECOS’s Institute of Integrative Bioscience introduced his institution’s efforts to enable synthetic biology entrepreneurship among his students.

Synthetic Biology as a Way of Life

Finally, more unorthodox topics were presented at SB 7.0, some of which featured rather interesting revelations. For example, speakers like Oran Catts highlighted how his work on lab-grown meat was not a commercially-motivated endeavor, but rather an art project! Jesus Ciriza Larraona of The Colours of Nature also gave a presentation on how they took the spirit of synthetic biology and applied natural principles to mechanize their fermentation process to sustain their natural indigo dying operations.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg took the discussion to a deeper level, questioning not what can be done to make synthetic biology better, but rather to question what “better” means. She spoke of her hopes for the future where tools and innovations will develop without creating consequent problems as a result of trying to fix existing ones.

#ilike, #iwish, #iwonder, #iwill: #synbioleap

Over the course of the conference, there was an effort by the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program (LEAP) to kick-start a conversation on how conference attendees felt about the state of synthetic biology now, as well as their hopes for the future. The hashtag #ilike was used in tweets detailing participants’ views on the positives of what already exists in the synthetic biology world, while #iwish and #iwonder got them to think deeper about the gaps, and what could possibly be done to fill them. Finally, #iwill is a statement of action that would hopefully get participants to step up and attempt to fill the gaps that they have identified.

What Does This Mean for The Rest of Us?

It is easy for the uninitiated (such as myself) to drown in the sheer volume of information and get blown away by the scale of synthetic biology in 2017. However, if there is one thing to take away from the conclusion of SB 7.0, it is that there are not just scientific and industrial steps forward in the field. Rather, there is an active conversation about both the ethics of synthetic biology as well as for whom we want synthetic biology to be successful for. Furthermore, those within the field, regardless of whether they represent the industry or academia seek public understanding as well as participation in order to dispel fears as well as to bring us into the discourse. And in this day and age, the public is uniquely poised to attain that understanding and start participating. It truly is just up to us to take the first step.

And in this day and age, the public is uniquely poised to attain that understanding and start participating. It truly is just up to us to take the first step.