Following a trade mission earlier this month, we consider the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, the benefits of the mission and the role of the BIA’s Synthetic Biology Advisory Committee.

One of the government’s eight great technologies, synthetic biology (or ‘synbio’) is defined as “the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as the redesign of existing, natural biological systems. It has the potential to deliver important new applications and improve existing industrial processes – resulting in economic growth and job creation”.

The Bento-Lab, a portable molecular biology station,  from UK start-up Bento Bioworks

The Bento-Lab, a portable molecular biology station, from UK start-up Bento Bioworks

While synbio’s applications are diverse, spanning all ‘colours’ of biotech, the unifying factor is the use of engineering principles to design biological solutions. Some companies are developing tools and techniques such as novel promoters, oligos and chassis, while others are using these synbio approaches to develop methods for cost effective and sustainable production of chemicals, for tackling the spread of disease by mosquitoes, for detection of bacteria or explosives, or even for the development of colour-changing plants.

Increasingly, the synbio community is working at the interface of biology and digital systems, tapping into and learning from big data and using in silico modelling to optimise pathways and automate high-throughput processes.

The trade mission and conference

The UK delegation in San Francisco

Earlier this month the BIA led a synbio trade mission with UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) to San Francisco to coincide with SynBioBeta, the leading conference for the synbio R&D, investor and policymaker community. The UK delegates comprised successful applicants from 14 companies, as well as key stakeholders from government organisations and SynbiCITE, the synbio Innovation and Knowledge Centre based at Imperial College. More information on the companies represented, and the UK’s strengths and offering in synbio, can be found in the booklet accompanying the mission.

Over two days the delegation visited six companies in the San Francisco Menlo Bay and Downtown areas to meet the teams and hear about a range of business models. The host companies included: Transcriptic and Emerald Cloud Lab who are developing remote and automated systems for molecular biology experimentation and complex data collection; Twist Bioscience and Cambrian Genomics who are working to reduce the cost of error free DNA synthesis to a few cents per base pair; Teselagen who are producing DNA assembly software; and Autodesk who are applying their experience in manufacturing software to analyse and learn from biological processes such as self assembly.

Sean Ward from Synthace announced the launch of Antha, an open language for biology

Sean Ward from Synthace announced the launch of Antha, an open language for biology

The final day of the mission was the SynBioBeta conference, now in its third year at San Francisco, with attendee numbers doubling at each successive event. SynBioBeta will return to London over 22-24 April 2015.  All the UK companies lightning-pitched their businesses to a packed UKTI sponsored session at the SynBioBeta welcome reception, and many also presented during the conference itself, including Synthace’s Sean Ward who announced the launch of Antha, a new open source language for reproducible work flows in biology.

J Craig Venter addressing SynBioBeta SF 2014

J Craig Venter addressing SynBioBeta SF 2014

A highlight for all attendees was the opportunity to hear from keynote speaker J Craig Venter – regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century for numerous contributions to genomic research, and entrepreneur and founder of multiple companies dealing in genomics, synbio and human longevity. Venter spoke about his body of work and the fields he is turning his attention to now, such as remote DNA sequencing and synthesis with a view to testing for life on Mars.

Even aside from the financial assistance offered by UKTI, the benefits of the trade mission were several-fold; bringing the UK delegation together to exchange knowledge and ideas over three immersive days in San Francisco, highlighting the UK’s synbio strength to a key overseas community, and building strong connections.

Follow these links to read SynBioBeta’s blog on the UK contingent, to see more photos from the mission, or for more information on trade mission opportunities.

BIA’s Synthetic Biology Advisory Committee

Earlier this month the recent Emerging Technologies and Industries Strategy 2014-2018 from Innovate UK was announced alongside £50 million investment aimed towards improving translation in seven areas including synthetic biology, and the BIA’s Synthetic Biology Advisory Committee (SBAC) was recognised in the Strategy as a key UK strength in synbio.

SBAC was formed in 2013 and is currently represented by 13 companies, large and small. The Committee meets quarterly and acts both as a sounding board for the BIA’s synbio interests and as a forum for members to share ideas and best practice. An important consideration for SBAC members is how to undertake innovation in an open and socially responsible way – indeed ‘responsible innovation’ is upheld as a key priority for the UK synbio community.

SBAC is keen to interact with other companies in BIA membership who might not necessarily class themselves as synbio companies. Take a look at the web pages for more information on SBAC and its members.