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Things Are Getting Interesting

by Steven Burgess

Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egoists without central authority?”

David Axelrod

Alas! my time as community editor is coming to an end. Looking back over the year several key questions emerge, and the way they are answered will determine the shape of things to come.

Rapid Response Synbio?

The Zika epidemic has become a test case for synbio applications. Researchers at MIT used synthetic DNA circuits to create a paper based test for the virus, and we heard from Gaetan Burgio about the various genetic and biological options for controlling mosquito populations.

However, the adoption of some of these methods is contingent on demonstrating they are effective in the field, value for money and desirable when compared to existing options. Oxitec, a company developing sterile, genetically engineered flies, report up to 90% decrease in mosquito numbers upon mass release into the environment. However, the efficacy of this strategy is likely to be dependent on local conditions, so the technology is being trialed in Brazil, Panama, Malaysia and the US.


The way situations are reported can influence the response. Media coverage of the Zika outbreak was saturated with military metaphors, and I met up with Brigitte Nerlich of the Making Science Public Blog and Carmen McLeod to investigate the potential effect this is having. Worryingly, the binary framing produced by references to war over emphasizes technical solutions, sidelining related issues of poverty, inequality and gender.

Should we load mosquitoes with ‘lethal’ factors? choice of language is key.

Taking this together, synbio applications could play a significant role in tackling infectious disease outbreaks if they prove to be an effective compliment to existing vector control methods. However, this will need to be accompanied by an understanding of the wider societal issues involved.

To Boldly Go…?

SynBio research is expanding into multi-cellular organisms and extreme environments. In our ‘Synbio in Space’ series we heard from Wieger Wamelink about growing plants on Martain soil, Lucas Hartsough wrote about genetic circuits at zero gravity and Fuzhong Zhang kindly took the time to discuss the process of constructing light weight protein-based materials for space.


Plant SynBio is at the forefront of research in multi-cellular systems, and we had some excellent contributions from Cameron Tout about the tools of plant synbioOrlando de Lange on engineering disease resistance in crops and Kostas Vavitsas on Microbial Community Engineering and using sunlight to drive metabolic pathways.

Rubisco localization in maize leaf section. Source:

However, with previous debates around genetically modified crops in mind I wondered what the best way is to talk about science. I started this role with a common misconception, described by Dr. Claire Marris as ‘synbiophobia-phobia’, or the belief that concerns around synthetic biology are based on fear and misunderstanding. This leads to the assumption that if only people understand what scientists are doing, the world will be favorable.

Jane Ades, NHGRI - source:
Jane Ades, NHGRI – source:

The reverse is actually true. Generally the better informed people are, the more wary they become, simply because the uninformed are unaware of the potential risks associated with technology. Dr. Marris kindly agreed to speak to me about the issue, saying –

“If your aim is to convince people that they should not be scared, it is the problem itself.”

And she is right. The GMO debate has moved on. There are many different interest groups involved, and concerns tend revolve around who will benefit rather than safety. Worryingly it would appear the same old mistakes are being repeated, with many of the misconceptions scientists held about communicating GMOs back in 2001 equally as applicable to synbio today.

Synbiophobia phobia poster. Source Andy Balmer

In a recent article Claire writes that “rather than helping to avoid a polarized controversy”, communication of synbio “has laid the battleground for conflict among opposing groups when products begin to reach the market” – let’s hope it’s not already too late.

Momentous Moments?

Three things stand out. First was the International Summit on Human Gene Editing written up for us by Rhiannon Morris and Chris Wallis. In wake of reports describing gene editing of the human germline, scientists came together to discuss the need for regulation and what all this might mean for humanity.


The technology offers great potential to help treat genetic disorders but it poses some big ethical questions. Franziska Oeschger provided an update from discussions between young scientists about how best to address these (following it up with a video of their efforts). Similarly, we heard from Yanchao Li and Philip Shapira about a workshop in Manchester about how synbio might be ‘reshaping the future‘.

The second major event was the creation of Synthia 3.0 – the synthetic bacterium possessing a ‘minimal set of genes’. Interestingly, we still don’t know what many of these genes are doing, which means we are still a long way from understanding what is required for life!


However, what might prove to be the most important (and controversial) development was the announcement of the Human Genome Project Write (HGPwrite). Things got off to a rocky start when scientists met in a ‘closed door’ meeting to discuss founding the project, with the subsequent concerns raised summarized by Andy Balmer in a piece about the dangers of secrecy.

As of yet HGPwrite is only an intention, but the declaration in Science heralds the start of a research program that will likely result in the construction of fully synthetic human cell lines. There is so much to unpick there I’m not evening going to start, but it is important to point out that not everyone in the community is on board with the idea.

Business and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)?

These are exciting times for synthetic biology, and a ‘synbio ecosystem’ is developing around a combination of start-up companies and big deals in the realm of DNA synthesis. It will be interesting to see if these companies can make good on their initial promise to produce products ranging from cheap DNA to ‘kill free’ leather and flavors and fragrances.


However, there is also growing tension between intellectual property, open science and innovation, a topic which was at the center of discussions during the OpenPlant Forum last month. This is partly driven by concern over the pressure to commercialize research, as seen was in the controversial use of ‘design’ in the UK synthetic biology road map, which resulted in the authors of Synthetic Aesthetics complaining that their work was being misrepresented in support economic development rather than being used to provoke debate.

There are also concerns that vital responsible research and innovation (RRI) work is being forgotten amid the dash for cash, as scientists attempts to shoe horn research programs into applied projects. The former poster child of synbio – the synthesis of the anti-malaria drug artemisin in yeast probably provides the best example of why there should be more, not less RRI. The technology cost $64M to develop, but commercial production is out competed by subsistence farmers in Africa, leading to what is beginning to look like a costly and embarrassing failure.

Co-operation and Community

1, Dealing with Success

The synthetic biology community has seen continued growth over the last year with many of the tools, and even the language entering mainstream use. Whether synbio will remain distinct, and how it will cope with this influx of new members has raised questions about how to maintain the community feel that has been fostered since its founding.


Conferences and societies will continue to play a role, and we had coverage from SynBioBeta by Eric van der Helm and the EUSynBioS symposium by Kostas Vavitsas. The growth of new sub-communities may also provide a solution. The beginnings of this is seen with discipline specific events (such as those focused on plant synbio) and regional competitions such as TecnoX and the Asian BIO-IDEATE DIY Biohack award.

13 (1)
Along with the help of others, Ignacio Sanchez and Alejandro Nadra initiated the TecnoX competition to help create a community of developers in Latin America, and promote synbio education. Image source Fernan Federici.

2. One of Our Own

The biohacking community is one of the most open and supportive I have encountered. This is best demonstrated by the huge success of the Bento Lab kickstarter campaign – the portable DNA laboratory raised £152,415 in just 36 hours with the help of a media blitz driven by contacts and well wishers.

PCR on the go? The portable Bento Lab. Source:

DIYBio is great at capturing that original thrill of doing science. I really enjoyed discussions with the London biohackspace about getting into DIYBio, reading Toby Wenzel’s piece on open hardware and observing the remarkable progress made during the UK’s first biohackathon. Further, witnessing the enthusiasm and hard work being put into setting up a Biomakespace in Cambridge has been truly inspiring, and I look forward to seeing its opening early next year.

Teams hard at work during the UK’s first biohackathon at the University of Cambridge.

3. The Blog

In terms of the blog, it was great to see PLOS teaming up with international synbio competition iGEM to provide a space for participants to publish project reports, and I have really enjoyed reading entries to our ongoing iGEM blogging competition. Additionally I was delighted Victoria Costello from PLOS decided to establish a ‘From The Community‘ section on the site to highlight the work of independent writers.

Interlab study on GFP fluorescence. Source Jake Beal’s Next Step

The two of the most prolific bloggers have been the Legume Laboratory and Jake Beal’s Next Step, the later of which has covered topics ranging from an inter-lab study on reproducibility in science, SBOL Visual, DNA hardrives and the importance of insulators in genetic circuits. I think this was a great addition to the site, and hope it continues.

So long and thanks for all the fish

This piece has really been about all the people that have been kind enough to speak to me, or contribute to the blog over the last year. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the fantastic response to requests for input into our review of 2015, which garnered a host of replies resulting in three blogs including the gene editing tsunami which was our most popular post of the year. So a big thank you to all.


PLOS will now be looking for someone to come on board and help Aaron Dy run the blog, we’d be happy to talk to anyone involved in synthetic biology research, but we’re particularly interested in having a grad student or post-docs join the team. If you think you might like to get involved and want more information, please send a note to or tweet @PLOSSynbio.

I started with the aspiration of trying to get as many different voices represented as possible, and I hope I have done that. Synbio has a great community doing fantastic science, and it has been a joy to follow over the last year. There are so many opportunities and challenges ahead, I feel things are only just starting to get interesting.

You can follow me on twitter @sjb015, or on medium.

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