February 27, 2015

The Year 2015 in Synthetic Biology

synthetic biology

Once more into the breach fellow synthetic biologists, the year 2015 is upon us and with it and the promise and peril of it! I’m beyond excited for the field of synthetic biology at larger for several reasons:

  • Engagement with the field is high
  • Diverse applications are cropping up and are being developed
  • Infrastructure efforts are bearing fruit, allowing focus on higher-level applications
  • State of the art software development efforts are being focused on the lab bench – that’s a good thing, not a threatening thing!

Engagement both bottom-up through undergraduate efforts like iGEM (@iGEM), as well as through the DIY Bio community that has brought the positive hacking spirit to biology is increasing acceptance. There are big questions that are being asked by the “Establishment” i.e. us decreed Synthetic Biologists, as well as various organizations like e.g. the FBI. Being forced to think about answers and models to these questions is IMHO the right way to approach the question of democratization.

Allow me the liberty to speculate now about what the future – both near and far – could hold for synthetic biology. These following predictions are a function of both a more rational look into the field where improvements and changes in behavior can push us all forward towards delivering, as well as my own hopes and dreams for the field! The field is still largely aspirational in language, and unfortunately performance. What we could see in 2015 is a hard shift towards deliverables in fields that are empowered by synthetic biology. Yes: I am talking about ameliorating the human condition, e.g. clinical work,  that’s both therapeutic as well as diagnostic. Fundamentally what has become possible in recent times, is leveraging the multiple emergent platform technologies to have networks of cells sense, react and interact with each other: the prerequisite functions of cells for any higher organism. Sophisticated genetic circuits can now be deployed in human cells, and the remarkable success and progression of cell and gene therapies in human clinical trials is opening the door for more sophisticated therapeutics and prophylactics

The maturation of SynBio has been accelerating and it’s been along the lines of focusing on clinical applications in both immunoncology, gene therapy through precision editing (EDITAS, CRISPR Tx, Intellia-Caribou), microbiome Tx, and more. Synthetic biology is coming into it’s own but the challenge is also how to keep the definition of the field relevant. A decade ago “making biology engineerable and predictable” was catchy; now we’re here and let’s see some results! I’m confident SynBio will continue to redefine itself not just as a discipline but also in the philosophy that’s underlying it: predictability, modularity and safety! There will be a more public debate in 2015 and beyond on all of those, but mark my words: we as leaders in this field do well to think proactively about safety, and yes that means thinking about regulations, too.

Another huge trend that will benefit the acceleration of SynBio, including the DIY Bio community is automation of basic lab work. Now hold your horses all you degreed biologists that might think “I’m being obsoleted” – that’s not the case. Rather it frees everyone up to do more experimental design, more planning, and be more rigorous in their approaches. Reproducibility will be rise, and in a decade or so we’ll laugh about the issues we’ve had in the days where every pipet step was manual. More seriously though, the modularization and drop in price of automation equipment, concurrent with a rise in scripting languages that are capable of bridging many platforms and equipment types  are going to enable smaller teams to perform rigorous biological science. Good examples of startups tackling those two problems are Transcriptic with it’s fully automated work cells where you can book time one, and Riffyn that’s taking an internet-of-(lab)things approach to connect your devices and parse the data for unwanted behaviors in your protocols.

To capture what Matt Ocko of DataCollective said memorably at SynBioBeta-SFO 2014, “software eats glassware”. I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it but it’s a catchy rephrasing of Marc Andressen’s famous saying. I believe software will make glassware smarter, and with it enable us scientists and engineers to move from the artisanal, guild-like system of the current scientific enterprise to something more democratic and transparent. Eventually little kids will start playing with their bio-scripting languages – or whatever layer of abstraction we come up with – the same way they play with scripting languages today.

There is at least one thing that’s looming large that I’m watching with morbid fascination: the #CRISPRwars! Yes it’s a hashtag and yes I’m not denying I was an early user or inventor (bring on the flame war!) of that… HT to my wife reminding me of TEKwars – some of Bill Shatner’s most underrated work! So where are we at? Quick recap: CRISPR is going to get the Nobel (yeah yeah it’s gonna happen – we all know it). WHO will get the call from Stockholm though is going to be a bit of a problem. There are of course the usual suspects like Charpentier and Doudna, but Church/Zhang et al. aren’t far behind. And since Nobel’s are largely for historical glory, let’s focus on the money trail. That trail leads smack to EDITAS. Once upon a time both Doudna and Zhang were founders of that heavily funded startup company, but NO MORE. Zhang et al. got the first very broad patent granted on CRISPR; in an astoundingly short time. Long story short: every major CRISPR startup has to be heavily capitalized because they’ll be transferring all that money to the big law firms that will litigate this. This would be the time where one could say: cross-license the underlying technology and let the application stand on it’s own merits. But cooler heads will not prevail, as biotech and pharma’s IP model is firmly ensconced in the composition of matter mindset of the mid 1950s – protect the molecule basically. Not going to go off tangent, that’s another blog post or three, but suffice it to say that opening shots will be fired in courts in 2015!

As usual you may not agree but that’s what twitter is for – tweet @mkoeris and let me have it! Ok, last but not least let’s all review the SynBioBeta calendar for 2015 so you know where to be, or which areas to avoid!

  •  SynBioBeta London
    • Lean Launchpad  for Biosciences in Q1
  • San Francisco

Here’s to an exciting 2015 – I’m gonna go shovel some snow, but that’s ok since we won the SuperBowl – guess where I live!

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