By Konstantinos Vavitsas and Jestin George
Synthetic biology as we commonly know it is often described in its scientifically specific context, or in the context of its effects on society and the environment. However, another prominent characteristic of synthetic biology in Australasia is the sense of community within the field. People from various disciplines, educational backgrounds, and points of view feel a connection to each other due to their common interest in synthetic biology, particularly because of the relatively small but growing size of this community.
There are several international meetings that serve this purpose and have wide global participation, such as the recent SB 7 in Singapore, SynbioBeta meetings, and of course the iGEM giant jamboree. Local meetings, however, serve the slightly different purpose of providing a platform for developing important local networks to foster more extended dialogue and prompt scientific collaborations. With this in mind, we were very excited to participate in the Synthetic Biology Australasia (SBA) conference last month and get to see the forefront of synthetic biology research in Australasia. The two-day conference took place in Sydney, at a venue which boasted a spectacular view of the harbour (views can be seen in the pictures).
The conference commenced with guest presenter Professor John Glass from Craig Venter Institute presenting the exciting journey towards the minimal genome. This tiny, ‘basic’ or ‘minimal’ organism has the potential to answer fundamental biological questions as well as offer a synthetic biological platform, where parts and functional units can be plugged in to confer specialised functions in this background-free chassis. Another benchmark synthetic biology project, Synthetic Yeast Genome was also well represented by the Australian partners of the project and Associate Professor Matthew Chang from Singapore. Highlighting an applied focus, Professor Sakkie Pretorius described the potential application of the synthetic chromosome bearing Saccharomyces to the wine industry for fermentation with improved characteristics and outcomes.
Many talks focused on solving real problems facing society and industry. There was a large spotlight on work on biosensors, such as that by Dr Zhong Guo, who is developing biosensors as simple and cheap solutions for healthcare and biotechnology, Dr Tom Williams on sensors for high-throughput screening and Dr Karine Caron, who is working on biosensors for producing lactose-free dairy products. On a more exploratory and basic research note, Professor Elizabeth Gillam presented her work on using ancestral forms of enzymes to confer industry-relevant thermostability. From smart design and engineering to synthetic bugs, these are just a small collection of some of the impressive work in a wide range of topics being done in synthetic biology across Australasia—see the conference program for more details.
Apart from all the hard-core synthetic biology research showcased, it was fantastic to have voices from the social sciences, bioethics and legal fields present at the meeting. Assistant Professor Alison McLennan called for regulation to enable success and not simply to manage risks. Associate Professor Ainsley Newson offered practical tips to scientists for interacting with bioethicists in more meaningful ways, such as inviting them to give seminars or approaching them in the same way you would a collaborator, inviting them to be a part of your manuscript. She made it clear that these relationships will encourage progress and safety, instead of only the latter (something more scientists probably need to hear). It was particularly interesting when Ainsley Newson asked the audience to, “Raise a hand if your work could make others feel uncomfortable,” to which most people in the room raised their hand.
Dr Lucy Carter focused on building bridges between people and research, commenting on three things synthetic biology has to embrace: public engagement, communication and social acceptance. Professor Sakkie Pretorius’s presentation on the application of synthetic biology in the wine industry directly attested to this, commenting that their work in generating a raspberry flavoured wine provoked the industry’s interest, but that they are not “willing to go near genetically modified (GM) products for fear of public backlash”.
Another interesting aspect of the conference was the Australian and New Zealand iGEM team presentations; a collection of young science students who have not only done impressive synthetic biology research, but who displayed high calibre communication, public engagement and outreach. They were also able to get feedback from the audience – we wish them best of luck in Boston!
Overall, the SBA meeting (which will take place biennially, 2019 meeting taking place in Brisbane, QLD) was extremely successful in bringing together the synthetic biology community of Australasia with friends from further afield. It offered an exceptionally holistic overview of the field, managing to both present the novel research being done, whilst still addressing important areas outside of the science. Community building and early career researchers support will be a primary focus of SBA in the coming year, so stay tuned, follow SBA on Twitter and get all (or most of) the synthetic biology updates in Australia, New Zealand and Asia!
Dr Konstantinos Vavitsas is a CSIRO Future Science Fellow at the University of Queensland, working on expanding the synthetic biology potential of cyanobacteria. He is member of the executive board and communications officer of Synthetic Biology Australasia. Find him on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, and follow him on Twitter.
Jestin George is a PhD student at the University of Technology Sydney, working on genetically engineering the microalga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, for applications in biotechnology. She is member of the executive board and assistant communications officer of Synthetic Biology Australasia. Read more about her work here, or connect with her on Twitter.
All pictures courtesy of Synthetic Biology Australasia