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A new synbio initiative: interview with the Synbio Canada steering committee

 

Canada is known for several things: cold weather, Niagara Falls, kind residents, maple syrup… but a new initiative, SynBio Canada, aims to make the country a reference point in Synthetic Biology. Canada is strong in research and its attractiveness as a destination for international students increases. This year a synthetic biology conference took place in Ontario—see the meeting blog coverage here—and it should be noted that our previous community editor, Daniela Quaglia, is located in Montreal. I had the chance to interview the steering committee and ask them about their views and visions regarding synthetic biology.

 

What made you create or join the SynBio Canada initiative?

Benjamin Scott: I created the SynBio Canada initiative because I’m excited about synthetic biology, I’m Canadian, and I like living in Canada; therefore I want to continue working in this field here. Inspired by other groups, particularly in the EU, Germany, and Australasia, I thought “well, why isn’t Canada doing this?” I realized that no one knew who else was really interested in synthetic biology in Canada. So, the first goal of SynBio Canada is to foster this sense of a community. We’re inviting professors, policy leaders, and industry professionals to create research profiles. SynBio Canada is also generating an ongoing discussion about the field. We want to foster a sense of national excitement surrounding synthetic biology in Canada. Eventually this may translate into a regular meeting or conference, but for now we’re just excited to showcase Canadian research online.

The SynBio Canada steering committee. Top row, from the left: Benjamin Scott, Laura Prochazka, and Taylor Sheahan. Bottom row, from the left: Samir Hamadache, Nathan Braniff, and Fatima Sheikh

Laura Prochazka:  One day a student working with me forwarded me Benjamin Scott’s petition. I signed it, sent it to my lab mates, and wrote Ben an email with my full support. I am excited to be part of Synbio Canada because it is the first initiative aiming to build a Synbio community in Canada, support collaborations inside the country and internationally, and serve as a registry of Synbio resources in the country. Our website has been designed to enable scientists, iGEM teams, companies, and funding agencies to connect and learn about ongoing research of individual labs or research centres. Lastly, we want to give students (and literally everyone) the opportunity to spread their voice and opinion of the field.

Taylor Sheahan: It is important to highlight the innovative work being conducted across Canada within synthetic biology. As we are aware, synthetic biology is a transformative technology with important implications on the industrial manufacturing, food, energy, and health and medicine sectors. I joined SynBio Canada as I believe it will provide a hub for synthetic biologists to communicate and share their work, fostering an inclusive community within Canada.

SynBio Canada will hopefully serve as a way for the synbio community in Canada to organize, collaborate and grow.

Nathan Braniff: I joined after I met Ben Scott at a local synbio-related meeting. I hope that SynBio Canada can grow and maybe ‘nucleate’ the interest in synthetic biology. At the undergraduate level, I think Canadian iGEM teams have done a great job in generating interest and providing an introduction to the field. There is a lot of excellent talent at Canadian research institutions, and generating interest and awareness is important to ensure a Canadian contribution to the field. SynBio Canada will hopefully serve as a way for the synbio community in Canada to organize, collaborate, and grow.

Samir Hamadache: I joined the SynBio Canada team because I observed that, while there is great work being done in synthetic biology by Canadian scientists, there is a great need for formal structures to connect the community and help it realize its full potential. I see SynBio Canada as an association that connects, supports, and represents synthetic biologists across the country.

 

Where do you see the biggest challenge of synthetic biology?

Benjamin Scott: I think the greatest challenge is communication. Synthetic biology needs to better communicate the exciting potential of its applications. As a researcher, it’s easy to get excited and to see the potential, without realizing that many people have never heard of the field. The synthetic biology community owes it to people not familiar with the field to describe its many benefits, and how we hope to solve challenges outside of the lab with synthetic biology techniques. PLOS is doing great work towards this through this blog!

Laura Prochazka:  Synthetic biology is still in its infancy, so there are various challenges the field currently faces. There are technical and scientific hurdles, such as a lack of standardized genetic tools and measurements and unpredictable performance when simple genetic modules are combined to more complex ones, or when we move parts from one cell type to another. Another challenge is to move from proof of concept implementations to real world applications and eventually to realize the fields’ promise to “engineer cells to create useful stuff and to solve the world most pressing problems”. It is certainly the end goal, however it also creates a conflicting culture. Perceptions among the public, investors and scientists working in other fields toggle between hype and excitation on one side and rejection and fear on the other.

Taylor Sheahan: The biggest challenge I see is the public’s perception of the technology developed and implementation impact. For example, current views on genetically modified organisms affect the adoption of biologically engineered technologies. It is also critical that synthetic biologists address the ethical, environmental, and societal implications of their work, which will play a role in how such technologies are used in the future.

Nathan Braniff: I think synthetic biology has many amazing potential applications, but the challenge is the generation of an engineering framework to synthesise biological systems efficiently and reliably. It is still an open question if we can rationally design complicated synthetic biological systems at all. I think as we attempt to create more complicated systems, an empirical trial-and-error based approach will simply not scale. I think there is a risk that the field could over-hype applications before the fundamental enabling technologies (like DNA synthesis and in vivo testing) are really mature enough to deliver.

 Do I think that synthetic biology has taken any wrong turns? No!

 Samir Hamadache: I think the biggest challenges are shared with other rapidly-emerging technologies: political, socio-economic, and philosophical implications of these advances. The more we promote constructive, interdisciplinary dialogue, the better prepared everyone will be for such challenges. Do I think that synthetic biology has taken any wrong turns? No, and from what I’ve seen, there is a lot of effort to promote interdisciplinary conversations and research into societal implications.

How do you think Canada performs in adopting synthetic biology?

Laura Prochazka:  Although Canada seem to have been cautious in integrating or accelerating synthetic biology until today, I feel that we are facing a real turning point just right now (is turning point the correct word?). Examples of innovative research programs that accelerate or integrate Synbio are The Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology at Concordia University, Medicine by Design Initiative and the newly founded School of Biomedical Engineering at University of British Columbia. Additionally, Ontario Genomics demonstrated increased interest in synbio and allowed the community to meet and discuss how to accelerate at their first synbio conference. And at least seven synthetic biology start-ups have been founded within the past one or two years.  Exciting times are awaiting!

Read more: An All-Canadian Collaborative Synthetic Biology Project

Canadian ethos of diversity and inclusion can create a new model for synthetic biology research

Benjamin Scott: The US and the UK are the historical leaders in the field, but this didn’t happen by chance. The governments of these countries recognized the potential of synthetic biology early, and made dedicated investments to support it. Canada needs to retain the research talent developed here. This means we should do something different to set ourselves apart from other nations. Jennifer Kuzma wrote recently about this idea. She suggests that the “Canadian ethos of diversity and inclusion” can create a new model for synthetic biology research. I agree!

 

From your experience, is synthetic biology inclusive and a pleasant field to work in? What could be done to improve these aspects?

Benjamin Scott: It’s a fantastic field to work in, the community is very welcoming. The field is inherently interdisciplinary, where diversity of thought and research is encouraged. I think it stems from a shared excitement of how a lot of synbio is focused on applications/solving problems. One thing I’ve noticed is that most speakers at conferences are men. But, at the same conferences, there are about equal numbers of men and women at the trainee level (students and post-docs), so I think the field in general is becoming more diverse.

Laura Prochazka: Haha, I’m not sure if any scientific field can be called pleasant! To sustain in this field, as in any other scientific discipline, you need to be quite resilient, get used to failures, and face many repetitive labouring tasks. Most important is that you are excited about the field you are working in, can place your work in the context of a bigger picture, and work towards something that resonates with your personal values. Working in Synthetic biology makes it easy to fulfil all these criteria. Indeed, once you indulge in a synbio thinking mode, it seems the opportunities and possibilities of biological engineering are without limit. And in contrast to other engineering disciplines, you have the entire biological world in front of you for exploration and redesign.

Taylor Sheahan: Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, I believe synthetic biology is inclusive and pleasant! – although we may come from different backgrounds, we share a similar passion, and are eager to work together and learn from one another to develop a technology/tool that benefits society.

Nathan Braniff: Yes, I’ve found it to be. Making sure that representation and hiring is equitable early on, especially with respect to gender, will hopefully avoid the challenges faced by older fields—now facing an uphill battle to change previous norms. I’m hopeful that when we look back at the first generation of synthetic biology pioneers, we will see a much more diverse group than older engineering disciplines.

Samir Hamadache: As a younger student myself, I particularly like that the community includes passionate individuals from diverse levels of education. I’ve met academic leaders who have decades of experience, as well as students working on ambitious biotech start-ups. However, there is always room for increased diversity—more importantly, diversity at the high-level decision-making tables.

 

Any last comment on the future and potential of synthetic biology?

Benjamin Scott: Canada has a lot of catching up to do! SynBio Canada is working to build excitement around the field domestically, and to instil a sense of urgency for dedicated support. Canadian researchers have so much to offer to the field of synthetic biology, so it’s fertile ground to grow right now.

Laura Prochazka: Synthetic biology has been poised to be concerned about safety and ethical regulations, miscommunication, and the fear of encountering non-acceptance by the public. I think the solution can be straightforward—let’s first focus on solving pressing problems that shape our world to the better, rather than filling gaps in the consumer market and proposing ethically or environmentally questionable applications.

Taylor Sheahan: Synthetic biology is a rapidly advancing field with various implications on our everyday life. I am excited to be working in this area and playing a role in how it progresses – identifying problems that need to be addressed and developing innovative solutions.

Nathan Braniff: I think the process of turning synthetic biology into a true engineering discipline poses some big challenges (which is exciting as a younger researcher) but I also think there is great potential in both the engineering applications and what we will learn in the process of designing synthetic systems.

Samir Hamadache: Many things need to happen for the field to scratch the surface of its full potential. There are massive amounts of bioinformatics data being generated everyday, and if we learn how to fully interpret them, we are bound to discover new tools that might make CRISPR-Cas9 look like a fax machine. Also, the fact that artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and blockchain technologies could someday intersect with synbio is especially exciting.

 

Editorial notes

  1. At the time of the interview the newest Steering Committee member Fatima Sheikh had not joined and thus was not interviewed. Fatima, I am looking forward to hearing from you in subsequent posts!
  2. The answers were edited for length and clarity
  3. SynBio Canada logo and steering committee pictures used with permission from SynBio Canada

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