In recent weeks, synthetic biology’s potential to revolutionise a wide range of industries has really come to the fore. As part of their breakthrough science and technologies conference series, a Royal Society meeting entitled ‘Synthetic Biology – does industry get it?’ brought together researchers from academia and industry to reflect on recent progress and the potential transformative impact of synthetic biology.
Christina Smolke (Stanford University) opened the presentations and asked whether synthetic biology and biotechnology can provide new supply chain routes for medicines – particularly natural product-derived molecules which have challenged even the most talented of medicinal synthetic chemists.
She described research, carried out over the past decade, which has culminated in the engineering of yeast to express 26 genes, from 4 different species, such that the yeast can now biosynthesise opioids from sugar – quite an achievement! This example illustrates the potential impact of such approaches that are applicable across a range of bio-inspired and natural structures.
Jason Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Ginkgo BioWorks – a 140 person Biotech company in Boston – brought an insider’s perspective into the life of a syn bio start-up. Interestingly Jason took part in iGEM(which BBSRC supports) when it only involved 50 people and it clearly proved to be a source of inspiration to him. He described how synthetic biology is starting to have real impact in the flavour and fragrance sectors, as well as in development of biotech textiles, for example, the production of spider silk in yeast.
Jason concluded by describing biology as the most powerful manufacturing platform – it has both nanoscale precision and continent-scale production – but it has been the ability to design that has been the missing component. A memorable moment was when he quoted an article from WIRED in relation to this entitled ‘Biologists are the next rock star designers’! Andrew Philips (Microsoft Research) extended this concept to ‘programming biology’. He described the approaches and software being developed to programme biological systems, highlighting the opportunity this offers to drive growth of the Bioeconomy – worth trillions of dollars globally.
It struck me that a great many more industries, beyond those we consider as part of the bioeconomy, could benefit from synthetic biology in the future. One example, highlighted by Jeremy Shears (Shell), was in the development of dense energy carriers – where applying and improving on the principles of photosynthesis holds real potential.
Indeed synthetic biology, and bioscience more broadly, is key to supporting a vibrant UK economy and society. On that point, let me remind you that there is now less than a month left on the Government’s consultation on the Industrial Strategy Green Paper – please do respond to this if you are able.
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