Earlier this month we travelled to San Francisco for SynBioBeta 2016 – a great opportunity to meet and hear from some of the innovative businesses in the growing synthetic biology sector. It’s been 40 years since Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson founded Genentech in San Francisco in 1976, by expressing synthetic DNA containing the insulin gene in E.coli, and the synbio industry continues to go from strength to strength. Here, we take a look at some of the innovations on show at the conference.
According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, we are on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution – characterised by a range of new technologies that are “fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds”. The rapidly growing field of synthetic biology exemplifies this definition, developing world-changing technologies at the interface of multiple sectors.
Synbio encompasses a diverse range of applications – reflected in the variety of organisations in attendance at this year’s SynBioBeta conference. Sessions examined its application in other exciting areas of growth within life sciences including engineered cell therapies and antibodies, on which UK company Oxford Genetics took to the stage, and engineering the microbiome. Utilising and exploring the microbiome is arguably the hottest area in the biotech industry at the moment. In recent years, a number of companies have made advances in the engineering of these microbes for new applications – including using genetic engineering to make new antimicrobials, and engineering gut bacteria to combat metabolic disease.
DNA storage was another focus for discussion, establishing a completely different role for the material which carries our genetic information. The vast amount of digital data we generate is outpacing the amount of storage available – we need more space. Utilising DNA as a storage medium offers advances in storage density and durability over current methods. There are still challenges to overcome to improve its practicality for use, with regards DNA synthesis and sequencing, but with advances in the biotech industry coming thick and fast, DNA storage is becoming a realistic (and necessary) alternative.
The conference provided the opportunity to showcase a number of different tools and technologies, with UK representatives in this space including BIA member Sphere Fluidics and their picodroplet liquid handling technology.
Synbio has a large influence on industrial biotechnology, an enabling technology that uses biological substances, systems and processes to produce materials, chemicals and energy. On the UK front the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) announced the winners of its synthetic biology accelerator funding at the conference, part of a $1.5 million investment for synbio projects. Among the winning projects were BIA members Synpromics, for their research with the University of Edinburgh which will enable to ability to switch on gene expression in specific tissues for gene therapies, and Ingenza, whose project with the University of Glasgow will develop a game-changing technology to monitor and control biotech processes.
The applications of synthetic biology are widespread and it was fantastic to see such a range of companies on show at SynBioBeta – and witness the growth of many regular attendees from previous years. This growth shows no signs of slowing, as new startups continue to spring out of incubators and accelerators, including the UK’s SynbiCITE. If you’re a startup or entrepreneur in the field, SynbiCITE and Rainbow Seed Fund recently launched Bio-Start to incentivise innovative early-stage companies and people with great engineering biology ideas. The not-for-profit competition offers the winner a combination of £100k cash plus laboratory space, a ten-week accelerator programme with mentorship, consumables and professional services valued at ~£100k. If you’re interested, find out more here.
SynBioBeta London will take place from 4 – 6 April 2017.