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SynbiTECH unplugged: an interview with Professors Kitney and Freemont


In my previous post, I promised some interviews with the SynbiTECH participants. I had the opportunity to interview the SynbiTECH organisers Professors Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont, who were kind enough to answer my questions.

Read more: In June the synbio heart beat in London


Professor Richard Kitney: UK as a synbio leader

Professor Richard Kitney at SynbiTECH 2019. Image courtesy of SynbiTECH.

Professor Richard Kitney is co-Director of the UK National Industrial Translation Centre for Synthetic Biology (SynbiCITE) and co-Founder and co-Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI). He is Professor of BioMedical Systems Engineering at Imperial College London. As Chair of The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Inquiry into Synthetic Biology and a member of the UK’s Ministerial Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, he has driven the UK’s approach to the field and the technology, its development and its translation into industrially useful products, tools, processes and services. In addition to The Royal Academy of Engineering Inquiry Report (Synthetic biology – Scope, Applications and Implications), he is one of the authors of the two, subsequent, UK roadmaps for synthetic biology (A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK; and Bio Design for the Bio Economy).


Kostas Vavitsas: How did SynbiTECH start?

Richard Kitney: For a few years there was a SynbioBeta event in London. But John (Cumbers) decided that they needed to focus on the Californian meeting. So Paul (Freemont) and I decided to hold a UK event, and the idea of SynbiTECH was born.

The first event took place this June in 2019, and expect SynbiTECH to be even better! Now we have the experience, we know what we may have done wrong, and now we have the experience to organize an even better event.


Kostas: UK is one of the world leaders in synthetic biology, doing better than countries traditionally strong in biotechnology, such as Germany and France. Why is that?

Richard: I believe this is partly due to the language. We were quick, together with the Americans, to adopt the synthetic biology rationale and vocabulary. Another reason may be the mentality and some certain freedom. While countries in mainland Europe are constrained by regulations and public concerns, we are more like the Americans. We have a mentality of let’s see where it goes first and then be afraid about it.


Kostas: In this light, do you think Brexit will hinder the UK synbio industry?

Richard: On the one hand, it might let UK make its own policy concerning GM organisms and relieve the industry from some regulatory constraints.

On the other hand, I find Brexit such a terrible idea that will plunge any industry. Both my wife and I are strong remainers, and we argue against Brexit. I still hope it will not happen, I am optimistic. We will try to avert it, never give up!


Kostas: There is a lot of public investment in synbio, when will the public see a return?

Richard: We already see return. In this conference we see a lot of companies that are either at the market or close, and the synthetic biology industry has a global market of many billions.

As for the public investment, that was the only way to build an industry. I convinced the government to invest 300 million pounds to synthetic biology. People were asking me how did I make it. And I replied that I was asking again and again until they got convinced. Never give up!


Kostas: So this is your motto?

Richard: Ha-ha, yes that’s my motto. Never give up until you succeed!


Professor Paul Freemont: synthetic biology for the benefit of society

Professor Paul Freemont at SynbiTECH 2019. Image courtesy of SynbiTECH.

Professor Paul Freemont is co-Director of the UK National Industrial Translation Centre for Synthetic Biology (SynbiCITE) and co-Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI). He is Head of Section of Structural Biology at Imperial College London and co-author of the British Government’s UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap. His research interests span from understanding the molecular mechanisms of human diseases to the development of synthetic biology platform technologies and biosensors and is the author of over 170 scientific publications and is a Fellow of the Society of Biology. Professor Freemont is co-founder of the spin out companies Equinox Pharma and LabGenius, sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of Netscientific, and has successfully co-supervised Imperial undergraduate iGEM teams since 2006. Paul is committed to furthering synbio companies in the UK and Europe to grow the UK Bioeconomy.


Kostas: What is the idea behind organising SynbiTECH?

Paul Freemont: I am really excited about the growing synthetic biology start-up scene in the UK and synbitech is about highlighting and celebrating these activities. I am also really interested in open source tools and community efforts that will spread the technology across the world and benefit all countries. That’s why I am particularly happy for the international participation in this conference, especially of the Kenyan government delegation.


Kostas: And one of these ideas is the global biofoundry alliance (GBA)?

Paul: Definitely, the global biofoundry alliance is one. We aim to coordinate our efforts, we want to share expertise, and we want to develop our techniques together.

Using a biofoundry can take a synthetic biology effort to a totally different level. And it can unlock new possibilities in research. But not everyone has infrastructure available to build a biofoundry. So now we have this alliance and make this technology available to the broader community. Now we are working together having signed up to an MoU which commits the GBA to developing pre-competitive open-source technologies and capabilities.

Read more: Are biofoundries the solution to synbio democratization?


Kostas: Can we ensure access and share the alliance benefits to the whole world, even to countries that do not participate?

Paul: This is also part of our principles. Whatever we do and develop together as an alliance will be open source and available immediately for anyone in the whole world. There are different priorities and cultural differences among the partners including issues like biosecurity and biosafety. We aim to take all of these concerns into account.


Kostas: There is a lot of talk about biosecurity and concerns when it comes to synthetic biology. Do you think this is justified or fear-mongering?

Paul: I think it’s a mix of both. There are some valid concerns, but there also a lot of fear mongering. For example, community DIY bio-labs take biosecurity very seriously and many  have written policies and codes of practice. However there are clearly state actors that can apply synthetic biology to non-ethical uses.

Read more: Biosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious


Kostas: How would you cope with a country or a facility in the alliance starts doing experiments that are illegal in the UK?

Paul: That is a hard question. However, the GBA has principles as defined in the MoU and we expect all GBA partners to follow them. But if a partner does not follow the spirit of the GBA MoU then they will be excluded. Of course it is impossible to force partners to behave in a certain way and I  hope that through open engagement and peer pressure that this will not arise.


Kostas: And the last question, inspired by John Cumbers’s talk. Will synthetic biology take us to space?

Paul: Ha-ha, I think synthetic biology will not take us, but will surely help. It is similar with climate change mitigation, synthetic biology is not the only solution, but it will be part of the solution. It has a lot to offer, especially in the sustainability front. However there is a lot of work to be done on changing our behavior and attitudes.

Read more: Synthetic biology solutions for Mars colonization


All images are courtesy of SYnbiTECH. I would like to thank Juliette Craggs from Sciad Newswire for arranging the interviews and her press support during the conference.

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