UK Synthetic Biology 2015

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Published on: September 6, 2015

At GARNet we have had a busy summer of synthetic biology with attendances at the HVCfP-SynBio workshop and the OpenPlant meeting. Therefore it was somewhat fitting that we extended our reach by finishing up the summer by attending the inaugural Synthetic Biology UK meeting, hosted by the Biochemical Society in London.

As one of the UK governments ‘eight great technologies’, the synthetic biology community has been growing steadily over the past three years so it was timely to bring together those who identify themselves as working in this area. However even amongst some attendees and certainly in the wider scientific community, there remains some skepticism regarding what ‘synthetic biology’ means and how it differs from conventional molecular biological approaches aimed at the generation of useful products. However it is likely that over the coming years more researchers will start to bring themselves into this community especially as in general terms it represents an attempt to standardise ‘parts’, allow easier sharing of data and best practice, development of novel technologies and production of socially and economically important products.

It was gratifying to observe that even though this was a general meeting there was an fair representation of plant scientists, even from outside of the plant OpenPlant hotbed of Cambridge and Norwich. Arguably the main benefit of the meeting was to be exposed to the innovation that is occurring in this field. This was exemplified by the presentations of Tom Ellis (Imperial College) and Patrick Cai (Edinburgh University) who are both involved in the Yeast 2.0 project. This incredibly ambitious worldwide collaboration aims to de novo synthesize chromosomes of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and then replace the endogenous genome piece by piece. Both these labs are each synthesizing an individual chromosome and are in the process of replacing the endogenous DNA with synthetic DNA, which also is often lacking introns and contains sites that allow further genetic manipulation. One related project aims to ‘SCRaMbLE’ the yeast genome to ascertain how regulatory and genic elements interact with each other. One such ‘SCRaMbLEd-line’ is able to happily grow at 37C (yeast usually grows at 30C), which appears to be a fairly significant alteration. The reason for this change is currently unknown….watch this space.

The organiser of the meeting was Vitor Pinheiro (UCL) and he also gave an outstanding talk describing the innovative work in his lab that aims to develop a new genetic code using the non-DNA nucleic acids. They have made some progress in identifying a polymerase that can read this XNA-code so the possibilities of creating an organism that uses a synthetic code are a little closer.

Modularity was one overarching theme of the meeting with Tom Ellis in particular describing a parts-kit of DNA sequences that can be easily moved around using the MoClo cloning system. This not only makes the generation of constructs easier, it also facilitates interactions between research groups, which is one of the guiding principles of synthetic biology. Nicola Patron (Sainsbury Lab, Norwich) similarly spoke about modularity in the context of plant DNA parts, a topic that has been described previously on the GARNet blog. Nicola also described using the same principles to produce a parts toolkit for the generation of clones for use with CRISPR-Cas, in an example of the marriage of synthetic biology and gene-editing, two principles that will be in the forefront of biological research over the coming decade.

Alison Smith (Cambridge) also described modularity in the design of the PhycoBricks DNA repository that was generated to facilitate the expression of novel compounds in algae. Alison expressed some frustration that the use of algae for the production of novel compounds has not yet been fully realised but the development of novel tools will make future successes easier to come by.

One exciting feature of the meeting was the opportunity for researchers who submitted posters to give flash presentations about their work. This type of presentation is a feature of most meetings these days and it takes a particular skillset to pull them off effectively: Don’t overload the slides and keep the message to one or two important points! Look out for a further wrinkle on the ‘flash’ format at the GARNet2016 meeting next September (details to follow shortly). This portion of the meeting was sponsored by Twist Bioscience, who are developing transformative DNA synthesis technology. Each of the top three performers won the delightfully dorky yet useful prize of a some Kb of synthesized DNA!

Another notably talk was from Nate Sherden, a postdoc in Sarah O’Connor’s lab at the JIC. They are interested in the biosynthetic pathways involved in the formation of secondary matabolites. Nate’s talk was an excellent candidate for the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag, as he described, with some humour and significant candour, his frustrating attempts to recapitulate the iridoid metabolic pathway. Now that the pathway has been determined by different researchers, the talk reflected his abstract which stated that it would be an ‘edifying cautionary tale revealing that the fundamental assumptions necessary for the success of combinational pathway reconstitution aren’t always true’.

Ultimately this meeting was a broad success with attendees pushing for an annual meeting, which in 2016 will be organised by Vitor Pinheiro and Susan Rosser (Edinburgh). As the ‘Refresh’ of the Synthetic Biology Roadmap will be published within the next two months it is hoped that more researchers will realise that their work lies within the broader definition of synthetic biology and will be encouraged to attend a meeting where some of the brightest minds of UK Bioscience are in attendance.

Overall this summer of Synthetic Biology has demonstrated that plant scientists are in the vanguard of this movement, whether it be in the development of standardised parts or in the production of novel compounds from a variety of experimental ‘chassis’. The funding of the OpenPlant synthetic biology centre has certainly facilitated this movement and it is hoped that the principles of ‘community and sharing’ that underpin the generation of useful molecular tools will further percolate throughout the plant science. The recent announcement that the iGEM competition will have a ‘plant-prize track’ in 2016 will hopefully stimulate interest in this competition from institutions that have a strong plant research and/or teaching focus. Much of the currently available funding relies on demonstrating the potential translation of fundamental research, which goes hand-in-glove with the principles of synthetic biology. Therefore embracing of this technology is surely an inevitable consequence of any successfully funded research program!

For a blow-by-blow account of the meeting please follow the #SBUK2015 hashtag.

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