Plant Sentinels and Robolobsters at the New Phytologist Synthetic Biology Workshop

In the rainy aftermath of last week’s Jubilee celebrations, a group of synthetic biologists gathered in Bristol for the 4th New Phytologist Workshop. Participants were treated to three days of stimulating talks on a wide range of topics all considered to be ‘Synthetic Biology.’ GARNet was there, and will be posting highlights, like the plant sentinel in the video below.

Video courtesy of the Medford Lab at Colorado State University.

So what is synthetic biology? The consensus definition of synthetic biology, or synbio, appears to be  ‘the design and construction of novel biologically based parts, devices and systems from first principles, or the re-design of existing natural systems for useful purposes.’

Synbio differs from traditional science by viewing biological systems as an engineer would view a machine – something to be created, not necessarily something that needs to be fully understood. The process consists of a cycle of hypothesis, computer aided design, production of molecule or system, analysis of results, repeat. Creating synthetic biology tools and resources (libraries of promotors, active sites, peptide sequences … the list is endless) of course involves a great deal of understanding of biological systems, but to an extent the unknown remains unknown, the most important thing is that you understand how the building blocks of your synthetic system work.

To a plant scientist uninitiated into the synthetic biology mindset, some of the talks sounded like science fiction. In America, synthetic biology has been used to regenerate blood vessels and axons in lame mice; produce plant sentinels that de-colour in response to air- or water-borne toxins; and make robots that use synaptic networks to control their movement. That all these most futuristic projects are occurring in the USA is no coincidence, UK synthetic biology is comparatively still in its very early stages.

That is not to say synbio has failed to reach our shores. There are some leading lights based here in the UK that are illuminating the way.  Custom peptides can be designed and synthesized by Dek Woolfson’s group in Bristol, and at Imperial College London work is underway to help make an entirely synthetic basic yeast genome. Rob Edwards (Fera) and Ray Elliot (Syngenta) also had exciting ideas of the possibilities that synbio presents for plant scientists.

Funding opportunities for synbio projects are extensive if the intended end product is desirable. Many multi-national companies are interested in the possibilities presented by synthetic biology, and many funding bodies including the BBSRC are very interested in investing in this emerging area.

Over the next few weeks we will be posting about the talks and ideas that came up during the New Phytologist Workshop, and discussing the possibilities for plant synthetic biology.

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