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Reflections on SEED 2019


Ross Cloney and Nina Pollak attended SEED 2019, and they loved it. I asked them to share their thoughts on what made this meeting memorable, and here is what they replied.


Nina Pollak: Synthetic Biology in the City that Never Sleeps

I was excited to attend SEED19 as one of many enthusiastic synthetic biologists in the heart of Manhattan. The conference focused on advances in science, technology, applications, and related investments in the field of synthetic biology. Eager synthetic biologists from around the world mingled with entrepreneurs to hear all about the latest advancements in the field; thus it did not surprise me to see that 33 countries were represented at the meeting.


The conference started with an inspiring keynote lecture of Jack W. Szostak (Harvard University), whose contributions to our understanding of telomere function led to his shared Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2009. His talk focused on the origin of life and how to synthesize self-replicating systems, touching on subjects such as: self-assembling vesicles, non-enzymatic RNA replication, RNA-template copying with dinucleotides instead of monomers, the transition from early membranes towards our phospholipid-containing membranes and the influence of physical conditions on ribozyme activity.


I particularly enjoyed the talk of Mikhail Shapiro (California Institute of Technology) on his novel method for imaging cells with ultrasound in a non-invasive manner using gas vesicles. Who does not love the idea of acoustically detonating cells!? The new tool using ultrasound, which is extremely accessible, has huge potential to change the way we image cells in the future. Moreover, I was fascinated by Mikhail’s research on tunable thermal bioswitches that allowed him to control the gene expression in his engineered microbes solely using ultrasound.


Another impressive keynote was delivered by Reshma Shetty from Ginkgo Bioworks. As usual Reshma’s talk did not disappoint the audience. With Ginkgo’s vision of making biology easier to engineer, Reshma raised important questions about design reliability and emphasized the need for quick and easy design-build-test loop prototypes. In a pilot study, Ginkgo together with Synlogic currently work tirelessly on a cure to a metabolic disorder known as maple syrup urine disease. I need to mention the successful attempt of Ginkgo to resurrect the flavour of an extinct plant; I would have loved to smell this flower in the New York Smithsonian Design, but I missed the opportunity. The audience simply loved Reshma’s statement of “filling in genome gaps” with surviving plant DNA and her comparison to Jurassic Park, in which the scientists took a similar approach to resurrect dinosaurs.


Overall, it was a delight to attend and be part of SEED19, which was well organized and offered a wide range of topics in a program packed with sensational talks from start to finish. As of now, I am looking forward to next year’s conference, which will take place in San Francisco on June 22-26.


Ross Cloney: a conference covering synbio both in breadth and depth


I’ve been trying to put my thoughts about SEED 2019 into a coherent form for a little while, since it was a great conference with some absolutely fantastic science presented and it would be nice to layout everything talk by talk instead of the rush of ‘And then there was this, oh and that and some incredible stuff about that thing too!’ that’s been my discussions about the conference so far with my colleagues. Of course, that’s not possible in a single blogspot. s Maybe taking a step back and thinking about the topics and themes covered by the conference would help.


SEED showcased the breadth of synthetic biology, going from work in cell-free and artificial cell systems up to the engineering of whole organisms. From blue-sky at the bench science to the excellent work by SynLogic that’s making rapid strides into areas of therapeutic and clinical relevance. Tying everything together are the conceptual threads of synthetic biology – the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle, the harnessing of evolution as a tool, the view that biology can be engineered and designed, and, as clearly evident in some talks, that the purpose of this is to improve the world around us. Because synthetic biology feels like it is about to burst into the world around us.


While SynbiTECH focused more extensively on the movement of synthetic biology into the commercial world, we at SEED were treated to a presentation by John Cumbers who managed to attend both conferences and presented us with an ever increasing list of synthetic biology companies. I used a spare evening to slip away to try the Impossible Burger and was blown away – and getting yeast to produce plant heme is low hanging fruit compared to what’s possible.


We are in an age of biology where Ginko can present its work on recreating the fragrance of an extinct flower and use a reference to Jurassic Park not as a joke or metaphor but as an explanatory tool – like in Jurassic Park they used genetic sequences from living, related species to fill in the gaps in their design. I try to think about what a world that fully embraces synthetic biology would look like, in which the ‘lab to corner shop’ transition is complete (since SEED took place in NYC, ‘from bench to bodega’ is apt).


So the thought I keep coming back to over and over was expressed most clearly by Ginko’s Reshma Shetty who put it to the conference that the limitations of synthetic biology might not be found in what is technically achievable but in what is socially acceptable. It is a theme that I’ve encountered several times from large international conferences to small groups of PhD students talking about their work over a beer or two. One of the tasks we have as synthetic biologists is to engage with the world around us and champion what we do while listening to the concerns of the public. After all, they will ultimately decide if this field does change the world by their acceptance or rejection of it.


Short bios

Nina Pollak is a synthetic biology researcher aiming to combine synthetic biology with 3D bioprinting to artificially construct a mobile “pseudo-organism” for detoxifying waterways. Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or simply drop her an email.


Ross Cloney is a Senior Editor at Nature Communications handling synthetic biology and genome engineering.  He tweets (mostly about synthetic biology, occasionally about his attempts at homebrewing) as @rosscloney 

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