Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field and nowhere more so than in the San Francisco area. It is therefore not surprising that this is the arena for the main annual event in synthetic biology: SynBioBeta SF. This year the event attracted a record number of participants and exhibitors. James Hallinan and I packed our bags and headed off to find out all about what is hot in synbio. From a jam-packed three-day programme, here is a countdown of our top 10 favourite discoveries.
10. You can own a glowing pet dinosaur
Made by Carlsbad-based BioPop, the Dino Pet is a plastic dinosaur mini aquarium filled with bioluminescent dinoflagellates which photosynthesise during the day and glow at night, exemplifying how a biology-based product may reach the consumer in an attractive, creative and educational way.
9. They taught bacteria to count
Prof Christopher Voigt’s lab at the MIT Department of Bioengineering has devised a programming language for living cells. By constructing logic gates into bacteria, the bioengineers have constructed cells that are able to synchronously fluoresce and make digits appear in order from 1 to 9, thereby pushing the boundaries of abstraction of biology and DNA programming.
8. Existing DNA synthesis chemistries might have peaked
Much discussion about DNA synthesis (Twist Bioscience, Gen9) and a proposal that perhaps the dominating phosphoramidite chemistry has reached its full potential, prompting a need for innovation enabling improved speed, length and accuracy.
7. There are now tens of thousands of engineered microbes for improving crop yields
Among others, North Carolina-based AgBiome are exploring the soil microbiome, making the case for using genome analysis and synthetic biology to control agricultural problems and enhance yields.
6. Materials are growing (literally)
Ecovative has engineered wood and foam out of mycelium and Mango Materials is producing biopolymers from waste methane gas, showcasing how synthetic biology enables radically new approaches to materials science.
5. The future of food is safe and tasty
MilisBio is developing new proteins for flavours and Sample6 has developed an improved phage-based detection system for food-borne pathogens, demonstrating the wide applicability of synthetic biology to find novel ways of feeding the planet safely and healthily.
4. Biosensors can be a product and also a useful testing tool
ProspectBio is using nature and software to quickly build new biosensors with desired specificity and sensitivity and Danish start-up Biosyntia uses ligand-responsive biosensor systems to select functionalised cells for specialty chemicals production, indicating the need for highly specialised whole-cell biosensors in a variety of applications.
3. Design doesn’t end after the design phase
As discussed with great insight by Christina Agapakis of Gingko Bioworks and Suzanne Lee of Modern Meadow, there is an important role for aesthetics, biodesign and user experience in synthetic biology. The first synbio products hitting the market are consumer-facing and they are paving the way for synbio as a norm in society.
2. It’s time to rev it up with Vmax
Dan Gibson of SGI-DNA (and Gibson assembly fame) presented another disruptive wave in synbio, a novel tool set around the new chassis organism Vmax based on the marine bacterium Vibrio natriegens optimised for growth, indicating there is life beyond E. coli in biological manufacturing.
1. Everybody wants to improve the test phase of the design-build-test cycle
Although the majority of synbio tools currently focus on the design and build phases of the design-build-test cycle in synthetic biology, it is the test phase that is the main bottleneck: there is a significant unmet need for automatic, low-cost, easy, highly multiplex screening platforms in order to select, validate and scale up. Innovation is needed to provide a complete solution for DNA assembly like Labcyte, to push the limits of bacterial profiling like Epibiome, or to perform massively parallel strain engineering like enEvolv.
In summary we could see that there is huge mobilisation on many fronts as synthetic biology starts to disrupt industry across markets, applications and processes. Whether enabled by automation, strain engineering, machine learning or multiplex screening, the ultimate goal to launch novel and ground-breaking products will only be possible by thoroughly understanding – and thus harnessing – the power of biological systems and combining this with great product design.