Earlier this month, representatives from across the synthetic biology community gathered at the Royal Society to take part in an open discussion – Synthetic Biology: does industry get it? The conference, organised through the Royal Society’s Science, Industry and Translation Programme, was co-organised by BIA CEO Steve Bates, along with Professor Ben Davis FRS (University of Oxford) and Professor Paul Freemont (Imperial). Speakers discussed the potential of synthetic biology to address some of the key challenges of our time, as well as the barriers to fulfilling its full potential. Read on for our highlights from the day.

What is synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary area that involves the application of engineering principles to biology. The field, in its broadest sense, is opening up a suite of possibilities for the design and redesign of biology to create new products and processes – advances in research and new toolkits could see the application of synthetic biology across a variety of industry sectors from pharmaceuticals to energy.

Improvements in the speed and cost of DNA synthesis in recent years have driven innovation at an exponential rate. Many international bodies predict that synthetic biology will have a significant impact on the economy, growth and jobs over the coming years, with the UK well positioned to play a leading role in the development of this burgeoning field.

A wealth of potential

Morning presentations from Professor Christina Smolke, Stanford University and Dr Jason Kelly, Ginkgo BioWorks both highlighted the strength of biotechnology as a manufacturing platform, offering nanoscale precision at continent scale production.

50% of our medicines are derived from nature, with 50% of those originating from plants – one obvious example being opioids. However, as explained by Professor Smolke, there are limitations to relying on nature directly to produce these and other products – a point also picked up by Jason Kelly when describing the manufacture of rose oil. Manufacturing with biotechnology has the potential to transform supply chains, providing a more cost effective and efficient route.

In an inspiring presentation, Dr Kelly shared his vision for the future: consumer biotech product launches (think Apple’s latest iPhone but for a synthetic spider silk shoe). From clothing made of bioengineered spider silk, to recreating the fragrance of extinct flowers, the falling cost of genetic engineering is opening new markets to biotechnology. And investors are interested – in the first half of 2016, over $900 million was raised by synthetic biology companies.

Synthetic biology also has the potential to catalyse the re-invention of industries and technologies. Presentations from Dr Andrew Phillips, Microsoft and Dr Jeremy Shears, Shell looked at applications from programming biology, to its role in the energy transition as we steer towards lower carbon and renewable energy sources.

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Credit: Royal Society

Does industry get it?

Across a multitude of sectors, there were some clear examples of uptake by industry on show at the conference. Multinational companies are becoming increasingly involved in the synthetic biology field, some funding research within their own companies but collaboration with SMEs and academia playing a more significant role.

Embracing this kind of disruptive technology can lead to great success for companies, but at a risk. Pfizer’s Dr Edmund Graziani emphasised the importance of driving internal innovation within a company – if not us, then someone else will capitalise on this opportunity. He sees collaborations as a useful way for larger companies to approach new technology and keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.

This was echoed by a number of the larger companies present on the day, including Dr Phillips, Microsoft who highlighted their work with BIA member company Synthace, and GE Healthcare who recently signed a collaboration with Synpromics, another BIA member. Dr Jeremy Shears also spoke to Shell’s network of research partnerships with universities, looking to academics for unique and experimental technologies.

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However, challenges to the wider uptake of synthetic biology by industry remain. These include the clear need to demonstrate profitability in order to displace existing processes; concerns over public perception and difficulties around the language and definitions used in the field. Critically, these barriers risk meaning that the full potential of synbio is not well understood.

So what else can we do to ensure the success of this flourishing industry? Persistence is key, it appears, when it comes to industry. And as synbio technologies begin to drip into the mainstream, building public trust through transparency, openness and dialogue from the beginning is paramount to its success – with companies such as the UK’s Oxitec already leading the charge in this area.

Find out more about the synthetic biology start-up scene in Europe here.