Synthetic biology in Cambridge

Following from my previous post about iGEM competition, I have decided to describe closer the field I have chosen. The competition was in fact just a start of an amazing adventure and although the field is very new, it is developing super-fast. Unluckily, I haven´t heard much about it in the Czech Republic. So far. It´s a shame because I believe that synthetic biology and genetic engineering will be one of the pillars and determining features of our societies, likely within lifetimes of my generation.

Synthetic biology is a field which emerged about 15-25 years ago. It´s difficult to determine the start as synthetic biology was emerging from genetic engineering in general. The main idea distinguishing synthetic biology is the connection of biology and engineering. True connection. Including pillars of engineering like standardisation of parts (well, building of cars would never be possible if everyone had to design and make their own screws and other parts), having clear intention of which “device” I want to make, design of circuits and design-build-test cycles. Synthetic biology is fed by numerous other fields of biology – the most important being bioinformatics, structural biology, knowledge of genomes, genetics, protein-protein interactions, transcriptomics and metabolomics, systems biology, the massive development of sequencing and molecular biology in general, even evolutionary relationships are important and much more. Synthetic biologists are integrating this all information from primary research to make something new, synthetic. In most cases through genetic modification, but there are other ways as well. Did you know for example that we can get electricity from any plant?

I guess by this point I have done very badly in hiding I am a fan of genetic modification. It´s not that scientists don´t recognise the risks. For example, in this publication (A proposed regulatory framework for genome-edited crops. Huang, Weigel, Beachy, & Li, 2016) authors look at the problem as objectively and with evidence as possible and try to suggest some meaningful legal measures which would make the technology safe and at the same time allow it to develop. The risks exist. On the other hand, we are facing huge population growth and ever increasing demand for more food, energy, fuel, living standard, etc. With growing population we need to increase effectivity of our crops to produce more food from the same amount of arable land as otherwise there would soon be no nature around. Oil is running out and our society is behaving very unsustainably. There are various challenges in medicine as well. For some of those problems the genetic modification the best solution we know about (or hope for), for some it´s one of many and for different global problems it´s useless. But banning it globally without going into detail seems very irresponsible.

So now we know what is synthetic biology. At least very briefly. I found this article (A brief history of Synthetic biology. Cameron, Bashor, & Collins, 2014) quite a nice introductory reading about the past and current challenges on synthetic biology. It´s spreading from USA where the regulatory framework is a little different (may not be necessarily ideal but is in some ways the opposite of European). But there are places even in Europe which are doing amazing research in synthetic biology.

To get to Cambridge itself. It is likely that Cambridge isn´t the most progressive place in synthetic biology. Not that there aren´t amazing labs working in the field but there aren´t that many and more importantly, little of synthetic biology has so far got into the undergraduate teaching. And that is important. When students don´t get a chance to explore a field during undergraduate, they are unlikely to go on to study it further. It´s probably connected with the slight rigidity of Cambridge. Things don´t change very quickly here, at least in teaching. The research is of course still on the cutting edge and the classes get updated frequently but large-scale structural changes in the whole timetables and curriculum are slower. Nevertheless, synthetic biology is slowly but surely making its way to undergraduate awareness.

The head of my lab, Prof Jim Haseloff, is and some others in his lab are very active in the synthetic biology community, one of the few who try to promote synthetic biology and get it into teaching. There are a few more active people from different labs, mostly from Plant Science department. Plant Science department regularly sends a team to the iGEM competition for many years already. There are currently two people in the lab employed just to organise various popularisation events like monthly maker classes, monthly Café Synthetique, cell-free workshops, official meetups and various talks. People get engaged in building the Biomakespace, our own community laboratory for synthetic biology and related field. Last year there was first Biohackathon after exams.

This whole research and hobby community in Cambridge is now starting to filter down to undergraduates as well. In teaching, some more synthetic biology is getting incorporated, we will have a part of one module in Plant Sciences on this and another module is just on metabolic engineering. Biochemistry department also seems to be involved a bit and maybe others which I can´t know much about. And there is our new Cambridge University Synthetic Biology Society. Established by former iGEMers, the society is running through its second year around and is very ambitious. We perhaps don´t have that many talks as some other societies but we see our role mostly in connecting the undergraduates with the synbio community, advertising the events to students and engaging them actively through projects. I am one of the two project managers and despite it being a lot of work behind the scenes to get some half-unofficial labwork going and engage the super-busy undergraduates, it seems to be having success. So it is very rewarding and hopefully will reach to even more students than iGEM can afford each year in Cambridge. So hopefully we will have laid the grounds for further spread and enthusiasm which may even persuade the university that making such bigger change in curriculum and teaching is worth it not just because the problems solvable are really important but also students are genuinely interested in this.

The change of views in the whole society is another thing. It will be tough but many of us believe that if we want to survive and still have such luxury civilised lives as we can afford in developed world and majority of developing countries would love to afford as well, we might need to change our views slightly. And many technologies have been perceived sceptically in their beginnings, before some safety framework has been laid down. Moreover, we are living in a sceptical age – being critical is a great thing. Ultimately not believing the “professionals” is however a little illogical. Myself I am quite curious and positive. Curious about which amazing discoveries will happen in my field, how people will perceive them, if we manage to save the planet before we destroy it too much (although it would probably survive anyway, without us). I think we are living in wonderful times and interesting things will be happening soon.


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