Synthetic biology has always been a visionary field, and one of the goals of the upcoming Seventh International Meeting on Synthetic Biology is to bring life to that vision, shaping synbio into a mission that the whole world can get behind. In addition to broadcasting the various ways in which we are revolutionizing biology, the conference aims to address some fundamental questions about the field. What is now important to take synthetic biology to the next level? What challenges are we still facing and how can we tackle them head-on? For although much progress has been made, there is even more knowledge to be gathered before our command of biology is complete.
Many in synthetic biology ascribe to the premise that we do not fully understand a system until we can build and reproduce it. One of the very first sessions of the conference, Building Synthetic Cells and Foundational Science, will address just that. Seven experts from around the world will discuss the work that is being done to produce foundational knowledge about the structure and function of cells, as well as review how these research developments contribute to one of synthetic biologists’ ultimate aims: to build cells from scratch.
Among these speakers will be Paul Freemont, a professor at Imperial College London and Head of the Section of Structural Biology in the university’s Department of Medicine. The work in his lab and department employs a wide variety of structural biology tools to elucidate the relationship between three-dimensional protein structure and function. In addition, he is co-founder and co-director of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and SynbiCITE. Professor Freemont has authored over 170 publications on bioscience topics ranging from molecular mechanisms of cancer to novel protein labeling techniques. He is perhaps most well-known for identifying the disease-associated protein structural motif known as the RING finger domain and for solving the crystal structures of a number of important proteins. Most recently, his team’s research focus has expanded to include the development of biosensors for synthetic biology applications and the engineering of bioproduction pathways.
Kate Adamala is an Assistant Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development at the University of Minnesota. Her lab’s research tackles synthetic biology from all angles: “bottom-up” approaches that include traditional protein engineering and molecular biology combined with “top-down” techniques that draw upon cutting-edge synthetic cell technologies. Professor Adamala is working to build minimal synthetic cells that are programmable as bioreactors and capable of interfacing with non-synthetic cells. In 2013, her lab developed the first model protocell capable of synthesizing RNA non-enzymatically. The eventual object of her research is to develop programmable synthetic cells for biotherapeutic applications, including the detection of tumors and the control of cell differentiation.
Byung-Kwan Cho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Prior to joining KAIST, he served as a Project Scientist in the Systems Biology Research Group (Palsson lab) at the University of California, San Diego. He now heads the Systems & Synthetic Biology Laboratory, where his research efforts include the engineering of optimized carbon-fixing cells as well as minimal cells for bioproduction of antibiotics. To this end, Professor Cho employs high-throughput techniques for characterizing networks of biological molecules including the genome, transcriptome, proteome, and metabolome. His team also uses computational modeling to generate novel proteins with therapeutic value.
Chenli Liu is a Professor and Director of the Center for Synthetic Biology Engineering Research at the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT). Professor Liu holds a PhD from the University of Hong Kong and completed post-doctoral training at Harvard University. His research career has included varied achievements in molecular and microbiology, from the discovery and characterized of a new variety of offshore oil-degrading bacterium and its critical enzymes to the engineering of a synthetic variety of bacteria laden with gold nanorods for the magnetic targeting of tumors cells. At SIAT, his present research focuses on continuous directed evolution and synthetic biology for therapeutic purposes.
Tobias Erb is the Research Group Leader of the Biochemistry and Synthetic Biology of Microbial Metabolism at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology. Professor Erb’s group uses synthetic biology techniques to investigate the role of soil microbes in the global carbon cycle. His research team works at the intersection of microbial ecology, physiology, and biochemistry and is dedicated to investigating metabolic pathways of the carbon cycle, especially those related to carbon dioxide fixation. Specifically, Professor Erb is seeking to identify and characterize previously undiscovered pathways involved in the carbon cycle as well as determine whether carbon fixation can be optimized through the engineering of novel enzymes and pathways.
Raivo Vilu is a twenty-five year veteran Professor of Biotechnology at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia. He is also a co-founder and owner of Proekspert, a developer of software solutions for consumer products and industrial applications. In his role at Proekspert, Professor Vilu helped pioneer BioeXpert, a widely-used software program for controlling bioreactors and storing process data. Previously in his career, Professor Vilu served as a senior researcher in the Institute of Cybernetics as well as the Institute of Experimental Engineering at the Estonian Academy of Sciences. His research interests are broad and span the fields of food science, environmental remediation, systems biology, and beyond.
Marileen Dogterom is a Professor and Head of the Bionanoscience department at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and a professor at the Leiden Institute of Physics. She is also a board member of the Royal Netherland Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Dogterom’s graduate training was in theoretical physics and her current research centers around developing a quantitative understanding of the mechanics of the cellular cytoskeleton. Her lab’s approach includes theoretical modeling, in vitro experiments in microfabricated environments, and experiments in living cells. The goal of her research is to provide foundational knowledge about a structure that is essential to cell division and function in order to pave the way for constructing synthetic cells.