This month we’re taking a look at the burgeoning engineering biology industry, with a series of guest posts from members of our recently re-named Engineering Biology Advisory Committee. Every high-tech industry is built upon essential supply chains and the UK’s engineering biology industry is no different, as Dr Zoë Freeman, Head of Operations at Synthace, explains below.
Engineering is built upon traceability, accuracy, reliability and precision, where a mathematical basis for obtaining valid data and basic metrology is prerequisite. Welcome to the world of synthetic biology, populated by a multi-disciplinary group of researchers and tech-bio companies who are turning biology into a fully-fledged engineering discipline. As one of the UK’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ and the subject of significant investment and strategising, there have been great expectations for the synthetic biology field to start delivering the goods. A recent Royal Society event posed the question, Synthetic Biology: Does industry get it?
A number of UK companies have indeed been developing break-through products, such as Oxitec’s genetically engineered self-limiting mosquitoes, Prokarium’s Salmonella-based vaccine delivery platform, and Green Biologics’ bio-based renewable chemicals such as n-butanol.
Yet it is important to remember every high-tech industry is built upon essential supply chains and the UK’s engineering biology industry is no different. In pursuit of applying engineering principles to biology, a core of organisations are coming together to create flexible and fit-for-purpose services, software and technology platforms that include libraries of genetic parts, highly optimised and fully characterised protocols, DNA engineering technologies and more.
The great benefit of the engineering approach is the ability to ‘do biology’ more reliably, reproducibly and effectively and to use that ability to manufacture exciting solutions for health, food and fuel challenges. To realise that ambition, the less glamorous underpinning steps are about standardisation of parts, characterisation of practices, and metrology – basic measurement of biology.
- LGC are developing more accurate measurement and characterisation methods for the synthetic biology sector, including SI (International System of Units) characterisation of transcript number, and working with Desktop Genetics on measuring CRISPR-mediated gene editing success. Desktop Genetics are also working with US regulatory and standards organisations on how to demonstrate safe and characterised gene editing.
Of course, biology is hugely context dependent, informed by any given combination of biological, environmental and temporal conditions. The movement towards standardisation and characterisation does not aim to underestimate that challenge of biological complexity; instead it aims to address it head on, using advances in computation and data analysis.
- At Synthace we have created Antha, a software platform that makes it easy to rapidly compose and execute reproducible workflows on lab automation and analytical equipment in a very flexible way. Antha thus provides researchers with the experimental bandwidth to do the multi-factor experiments necessary to explore biological complexity.
- Synpromics have been very successful in developing custom synthetic promoters for cell-type or condition-specific control of gene expression, with diverse applications including in mammalian bioprocessing.
With these foundations bedding in and collaborations emerging, companies in the supply chain are exploring new directions too, with some also starting to develop new products themselves. For example, Oxford Genetics formed with an interest in bringing standardisation to DNA and, having gained insights along the way, the company has extended into mammalian expression systems and cell line engineering.
The World Economic Forum defines the Fourth Industrial Revolution as being ‘characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres’. This revolution is starting with a well-equipped supply chain.