11th October 2013 Boston, USA

Why I think Synthetic Biology is GREAT!

The US Science and Innovation Network kicked off a year-long campaign focused on synthetic biology last month in Boston. The goal of this campaign is to promote the fantastic synthetic biology research ongoing in the UK, boost current collaborations and inspire some new ideas for ways the two countries can work together. I am really enthusiastic about this campaign, not just because it reflects months of work among many in our network, but because synthetic biology is my favorite of the ‘8 Great Technologies.’ Yes, I know, Science and Innovation Officers are probably not supposed to pick favorites, but I can’t help it – here’s why synthetic biology is my favorite:

  1. Synthetic biology is interdisciplinary and collaborative. Synthetic biology is commonly defined as ‘‘…the design and engineering of biologically based parts devices and systems as well as the redesign of existing natural biological systems.’ Essentially, synthetic biology lies at the intersection between engineering and biology, and brings together scientists from many different disciplines. Most synthetic biology projects follow a “design – build – test” feedback loop. This loop can represent different scientists contributing different steps to make one output. An engineer might design a scheme, then a biologist would build the system from an existing organism, and have an analytical chemist test it and analyze the results…before going back to the engineer to modify the design. These collaborations do not just have to span one laboratory – scientists from Imperial College were recently awarded a £1 million grant to join an international effort to build the world’s first synthetic yeast genome with engineers and biologists around the globe.
  2. And along those lines, why wasn’t iGEM around when I was an undergrad? The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is an international synthetic biology competition that was initially aimed at university students, but now includes divisions for high school students and entrepreneurs. Teams made up of students are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of summer and are asked to build a biological system to function in living cells. Many past teams have been so successful that their projects have led to start-ups This year 14 teams will represent the UK in the competition.
  3. The UK has demonstrated tremendous policy leadership… In 2011, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts chaired a roundtable discussion with academia and industry to consider the possible role for government in supporting the growing UK synthetic biology sector. The resulting working group produced a roadmap strategy and established a Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, which Minister Willetts now co-chairs jointly with Dr. Lionel Clarke (Shell). This joined up approach between government, academia, and industry revealed a clear vision for the synthetic biology landscape within the UK and the steps that needed to be taken to enhance and support its growth.
  4. …and significant research investments. Through two of its research councils (BBSRC and EPSRC) and the TSB, the UK has allocated a lot of research funding to promising synthetic biology academic and industrial research. Most recently, the field received a £60 million pound boost in capital upon synthetic biology being named as an ‘8 Great.’
  5. Far reaching potential. Amanda Collis (BBSRC), Tom Ellis (Imperial College), John McCarthy (University of Warwick), Joyce Tait (University of Edinburgh), and Dek Woolfson (University of Bristol) represented the UK during the campaign launch here in Boston, MA. Prominent US representatives from academia and industry, as well as a senior representative from the National Science Foundation, joined the UK delegation for a poster session, dinner at the Residence, and a workshop session at the Consulate. The two-day program had a lot of really fun moments, but all of the discussions that took place can be summed up in one word – potential. The potential applications of synthetic biology are vast and far-reaching – everything from generating alternative fuels to new vaccines! More importantly, it was clear from the discussions that synthetic biologists are not only determined to achieve solutions to the global challenges facing our society, but to do so responsibly by mitigating any risks associated with their emerging technologies.

I think Boston was the beginning of many future scientific partnerships and I look forward to reporting on them all in due course. Until then…our next stops are San Francisco and Chicago! (I can’t wait.)

About Sarah Hokanson

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has…

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has a love for discovery, whether it be uncovering the answer to a scientific question or getting to the end of a very good book. Graduating with B.A. degrees in Chemistry and English from Boston University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2010. Sarah’s work focuses on identifying New England leaders in bioscience innovation and building connections between the New England and UK scientific and technical communities. When Sarah is not working to facilitate scientific collaborations, she is busy pursuing independent research questions such as, “Does cake flour really produce fluffier cupcakes?” (She has since found that cake flour makes a really big difference.) Sarah also helps to organize events for the Boston University alumni club.