The emerging and promising field of synthetic biology has attracted the attention of world-leading scientists for years. Simply put, synthetic biology aims to create novel biological systems and modify existing ones for useful purposes. It pushes the limits of genetic engineering by developing whole biosynthetic pathways and uses well-characterized systems to make engineering of biology easier and more reliable.
Recently, Scotland made investments to address one of the field’s major bottlenecks—DNA assembly. By understanding and harnessing the building blocks of DNA and the complex mechanisms that make up the planet’s biochemistry—from bacteria’s ability to breakdown and utilize food sources to plants’ ability to synthesize vitamins—scientists from the energy, chemicals, as well as healthcare sectors recognize an opportunity to use natural systems found in biology to solve issues of global importance.
Scotland and Synthetic Bio
Over the past few years the scientific community’s interest in synthetic biology has gained momentum. This is partly due to early successes such as the development of a biosynthetic way to produce anti-malaria drug Artemisinin, making the drug more affordable for developing countries. Much credit is also attributable to the growth of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) competition, a global undergraduate event where student teams compete to create the best modified biological systems. Since its inception the number of teams participating in IGEM has grown from a handful in 2004 to 112 teams from 26 countries in 2009.
Scotland is a country of five million people and has 14 major universities, several of which have expertise in molecular biology, engineering, bioinformatics, and connected disciplines such as systems biology, all at the heart of synthetic biology.
The larger institutions such as the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow are organizing groups of researchers from different disciplines to work in synthetic biology and developing curriculum to train students in this growing field. In smaller institutions, a number of faculties in diverse areas are actively pursuing synthetic biology research and mentoring IGEM teams.
Tackling the Challenges
To capitalize on this expertise, in 2006, Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s economic development agency, performed an extensive market and technology analysis of the field and concluded that synthetic biology could impact multibillion-dollar markets worldwide and considerably transform sectors like energy, life sciences, and chemical sciences. It also suggested that synthetic biology would become the fastest growing segment in biotechnology, leading to significant company formation and job creation.
The research also revealed, however, that much of the transformative potential of synthetic biology was restrained by several technology barriers. These include the development of well-characterized organisms that can be easily engineered (called chassis organisms), the characterization and availability of modular components, better models for regulatory circuits, new informatics tools for design, and new methods for DNA synthesis and assembly.
In particular, assembly of DNA segments into longer fragments is central to building new biosynthetic pathways and, at the same time, represents a significant bottleneck. Current approaches are error-prone, resource- and time-intensive, and generally addressed at the individual laboratory or company level. In looking at the issue more broadly, Scottish Enterprise believed that investment focused on an intensive, short-term research program could quickly deliver a solution.
By financing and designing such a program, Scottish Enterprise hopes to accelerate the development of synthetic biology while promoting Scotland’s competitive edge in this field. After identifying interested research partners and organizing a subsequent workshop to define the scope of the program, Scottish Enterprise selected two organizations: Ginkgo Bioworks of Boston and Heriot-Watt University of Edinburgh. Ginkgo Bioworks is a start-up company founded by a team of four former MIT bioengineering students with the help of MIT’s Thomas Knight Jr., one of the fathers of synthetic biology. Ginkgo brings to the program its expertise in biological engineering and bioinformatics as well as a focus on innovative approaches for DNA assembly reactions and associated informatics design tools. Dr. Will Shu’s group at Heriot-Watt University consists of experts in microfluidic technologies and focuses on building a microfluidic platform to perform the assembly reactions developed by Ginkgo.
In August 2009, Scottish Enterprise launched the £2.4 million (roughly $3.6 million) Genome Segment Assembly (GSA) research program. Scheduled to complete in early 2011, it will deliver the microfluidic platform for assembly of DNA parts into biosynthetic pathways. The platform will afford high-throughput combinatorial assembly of large DNA segments in a fast and reliable way and will be licensed to commercial partners in Scotland and the U.S. allowing them to offer assembly services.
The Scottish licensee company will be the first firm offering this type of service in Europe, reinforcing Scotland’s position in the promising area of synthetic biology. These companies will not only satisfy a clear need felt by academic and industrial researchers but also accelerate the pace of research in synthetic biology.
Scottish Enterprise will host a panel session focusing on DNA construction at the upcoming BIO International Convention titled “From Oligos to Gene to Pathways to Genomes—New Challenges in DNA Construction for Synthetic Biology.”
Hand in hand with new technology comes a myriad of ethical, social, and policy issues, especially with a scientific discipline that deals with the repackaging of DNA from multiple organisms. Recognizing this, founders of the discipline have, from the beginning, worked closely with social scientists and ethicists to strengthen the field. Innogen, the Edinburgh-based ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on Innovation in Genomics, is a thought leader in this area.
The potential of synthetic biology to revolutionize many different aspects of our lives is clear. There currently exist, however, many technological roadblocks. In particular, limitations in DNA construction prevent us from fully advancing this field. Scotland is committed to overcoming these obstacles and improving DNA construction technologies so that the field of synthetic biology can realize its potential to bring about diverse and exciting commercial opportunities.