Whether it was academic leaders, startup entrepreneurs, or seasoned biotechnology veterans speaking, it was hard to avoid thinking of how Silicon Valley loomed over the discussions of synthetic biology’s path forward. From the snappy startup pitches to futurist discussions, the 5th annual SynBioBeta SF 2016 made the players in the emerging synthetic biology industry seem right at home in to San Francisco.
Silicon Valley and the whole San Francisco bay area have become synonymous with the tech industry. It has been THE place for tech companies from the boom of hardware companies up through the growth of internet giants like Google and Facebook.
So while we gathered in the South San Francisco conference center, it became clear that the leaders in synthetic biology are taking notes on Silicon valley’s path and where synbio might be headed.
The comparison raises several questions that came up at SynBioBeta SF 2016. Will synthetic biology parts and hardware ever allow for large-scale democratization of biotechnology? Can synbio follow the Moore’s law type growth of computing power? What safety flaws can we address to avoid biosecurity flaws like our cybersecurity systems?
Democratization of synthetic biology
The rise of personal computers gave rise to a new generation of programmers who could go from a great idea to prototype software with little capital. Synbio has aimed to make biology as easily engineered and programmed as electronics. For synbio to reach this level there needs to be changes in cost, standards for DNA parts, and automation of lab techniques.
In his opening remarks, SynBioBeta founder John Cumbers spent time on need for better part characterization by helping to introduce Joint Initiative for Metrology in Biology (JIMB)–pronounced ‘Jim Bee’– with a video to motivate collaborative standards and biological measurements. This effort aims to improve our measurement tools so accurate and comparable data is possible across labs.
Standardization and predictability have been areas of focus since the beginning for synthetic biology, but it’s not clear yet that we’ve found one way forward. Many of the companies at SynBioBeta SF offered tools and services like automation and gene synthesis to make synbio easier, but several companies still touted their investment in custom platforms necessary to tackle real applications.
It’s clear that enough foundation has been laid for synbio companies to tackle real problems and start to compete industrially in certain niches, but will it ever be as accessible as coding on a computer?
Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy was joined on stage by writer Stewart Brand to discuss accessibility among other topics surrounding the culture and future of synthetic biology. Endy advocated for synbio as an accessible tool that should help large swaths of people outside of its current practitioners.
Endy spoke about growing the available tracks for getting people involved in the synbio community. The student synbio competition he helped found called iGEM already has 30,000 alumni, but smaller events could help get people active on local levels.
But turning an idea into a product still takes money and resources. Ryan Cawood testified to the struggles of an early entrepreneur when he had to use a personal loan of 20,000 pounds and other people’s lab space to get Oxford Genetics off the ground in 2011. He’s managed to keep the company going and to the series A funding, but it was still a struggle after finishing a PhD.
Several other companies spoke about their incubator experiences with incubators like IndieBio (San Francisco), JLABS (San Diego with new locations in SF and Boston), and Illumina Accelerator Program (San Francisco). The challenge these new incubators are trying to solve is the high level of resources necessary to bring good ideas to market in biotechnology compared to software companies.
Growth of synbio field
Synbio may never be as widespread as digital technology, but by many metrics it’s still a quickly growing field. New people continue to join the field, academic publications continue to increase, and funding to synbio companies is showing near exponential growth.
As synthetic biology takes on new commercial applications it has also attracted Silicon Valley investors and continued to raise larger amounts of money. But can synthetic biology do it its own Moore’s Law and make biotech the new tech?
Speakers hit several familiar themes on how to accelerate progress in synbio: design automation, reduced synthesis costs, new molecular biology tools, and industrial automation of molecular biology steps. Six commercial exhibitors were showing off DNA or RNA synthesis services and four had tools for automating your experiment.
An exciting design automation came from academia as Chris Voigt presented on his collaboration with Doug Densmore‘s lab to create a programming language called Cello to take design from function to specified DNA sequence.
At the more basic level, synthetic biology has benefited from and contributed to new molecular biology techniques. The molecular tools market is still dominated by a few major powerhouses and nearly all were present in San Francisco for SynBioBeta.
New England BioLabs has been one of main suppliers making cloning and synthetic biology possible and showed off their newest enzymes, Promega introduced new reporters for studying protein-protein interactions, and the science supply giant Thermo Fisher Scientific outlined its synbio product line.
On day 2, SGI-DNA‘s Dan Gibson gave the second keynote on building their new minimal synthetic cells, Syn2.0 and Syn3.0. The name Gibson is probably familiar to anyone doing cloning work due to the popular Gibson Assembly for joining multiple DNA fragments with few sequence restrictions. This has been one of the main enabling technologies they’ve created on their way to the world’s first synthetic bacterial cell.
With Syn2.0 and Syn3.0 commercially available, custom built cells might be viable options for accelerating past limitations of standard lab strains like E. coli. There are still plenty of hurdles to overcome to make most of the proposed synbio applications feasible, but ambitious projects like building cells from the ground up are necessary to ever get the impact on biotechnology that the synbio hype has promised.
While many companies could be accused of chasing tech companies’ ethos on impactful technology, one area where genetic technology is trying to directly compete with traditional tech hardware is the use of DNA for data storage. The DNA storage panel raised lots of questions on if DNA could ever compete with silicon to solve our massive data storage needs, but companies are finally trying to do real tests of the concept. This is not a new idea (see Jake Beal’s summary of workshop on topic and an iGEM team’s blog post on DNA typewriter idea) but the combination of reduced DNA synthesis/sequencing costs with the need for long term data storage may eventually make it useful.
Some mix of ambitious goals and finding useful niches will be necessary to guide the synbio field into the plateau of productivity like many of Silicon Valley’s tech companies. The field is still growing but will have to address its own unique challenges with public safety being at the top of that list.
Biosecurity and safety of synbio
Synthetic biology and genetic engineering have always brought out fears from the public over designer babies, bioweapons, and vague unintended consequences. The thing about vague unintended consequences is that they can never have a guarantee against them.
There are definitely risks to new biotechnology just like there were risks with computer technology. The goods news may be that there is intense focus on security measures and a vigilance not often seen in early technology fields.
The biosafety panel included people from the FBI, a government lab, a funding agency, and private investor. They demonstrated by their presence and discussions how people governments, nonprofits and industrial institutions are engaged before synbio tech is on demand for everyone.
Most companies now seem to be finding niches that have less regulatory burden or making use of organisms that are already generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by regulatory bodies. Synlogic engineers E. coli Nissle that has already been sold as a probiotic. Epibiome pointed out that some phage therapies have also gotten GRAS status already.
While a lot of the safety talk was focused on preventing harm from synthetic biology, Sample6 showed off their platform using synbio for food safety testing. Their engineered phage detect several bacteria to quickly detect contamination and possibly save you from a nasty Chipotle visit.
There will be other companies that make use of synbio to make us safer instead of just trying to avoid any unintended harm. As synbio technology becomes more pervasive these safety discussions will become more concrete, but Peter Carr noted in the panel, we have been able to crystallize many specific ideas on threats so that we can fully address them.
What we learned from internet security is that potential holes in security need to be thought of ahead of time and users need to be aware of limitations. What we didn’t learn is specifics because there will be a totally different set of rules for a bioeconomy.
The SynBioBeta crowd was significantly different than meetings/conferences I’ve been to before, and the mix of people from different aspects of synbio industry was a pleasant change of pace from a purely academic conference. There have been enough of review papers and discussion sections on the emerging synbio industry that it was nice to see the people and companies trying to make it happen.
Amid all of the hype and talk, people are finding the areas where synbio can get some commercial wins. Synthetic biology will have to make the design-build-test cycle for engineering much easier while maintaining safety if it’s going to become the transformative bioeconomy it promised. Wide adoption and low barriers to entry for software or apps have been key features to continuing Silicon Valley’s success, and synthetic biology still has work to do on those fronts. The attendees of SynBioBeta SF 2016 appear to understand this and I’m sure there will be exciting new developments back in the bay area for the 2017 meeting.