Just as the industrial revolutions of the previous centuries were enabled by novel technologies such as the spinning jenny, steam engine, and transistor, the tools and techniques for engineering biological machinery, known popularly as synthetic biology, may shepherd in the next great wave of innovations ranging from clean water and energy production to novel therapies for intractable diseases. While the idea of gene editing has been well-established in academic and research organizations for many decades, it is only recently that the tools to enable the design, high throughput screening and synthesis of highly accurate nucleic acid constructs, and breakthroughs such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system, have been made available to the broader industrial and startup community.
In early March, I had the privilege of attending a dinner hosted by SynBioBeta and the Singapore Economic Development Board to discuss the challenges and opportunities in this rapidly growing field. The dinner was a great opportunity to hear about the opportunities and indeed threats posed to established industries by synthetic biology, with contributions from organisations including GE, Apple, Dupont, GRAIL, Genentech and Theil Capital.
One of the highlights of the evening was a discussion around identifying “grand challenges” for the synthetic biology community to solve, where these novel technologies would provide clear technical and economic advantages over current practices. One recent example that came to mind that demonstrates the power of these novel gene editing techniques is the gene drive, which has the ability to transfer copies of modified genetic code onto subsequent generations of a host at a much higher frequency than Mendelian inheritance predicts. Gene drives have already been tested in the laboratory and shown promise in blocking mosquitoes from transmitting disease such as dengue, malaria, and Zika.
Of equal importance to the rapid development of new gene editing technologies is the debate over how these technologies should transition out of the lab and into the field in a socially and ecologically responsible manner. I’m looking forward to hearing about the exciting new approaches that the synthetic biology community is taking to deal with these grand challenges when companies, researchers and regulators present at upcoming events such as SB7.0 in Singapore in June. This is an exciting time for the field as new applications that we have yet to dream of will surely emerge in the coming years.