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A Reflection on the First 20 Years of Synthetic Biology And Its Prospects For The Next 20

As one of the nation’s leading experts on integrated circuits and very large-scale integration (VLSI), Tom Knight saw earlier than most that Moore’s Law which had accurately predicted the course of technology development in silicon for 30 years  had an expiration date.

Moore’s Law would reach its limit when transistors packed onto integrated circuits in ever increasing numbers became less than ten or 12 atoms wide, reasoned Knight, who was an MIT professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the time. If transistors were made smaller than that, engineers could no longer be confident that statistical randomness would “put things in the right place.” They would need a better technology biochemistry  to reliably make correct placements. “We could use bio-molecules, such as proteins, to self-assemble and crystallize in the range we needed,” Knight imagined.

Keynote Address: the importance of modeling biological systems in building a robust industry in synthetic biology.

That next generation of integrated circuits Knight envisioned in 1990 may still be decades away, but he has made an impressive start. As founder of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition and Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, he has firmly established himself as the “father of synthetic biology.” In the keynote address that he’ll deliver at SynBiobeta London 2016, Knight will draw on his former career as a computer architect in discussing the importance of modeling biological systems in building a robust industry in synthetic biology. Using examples from Intel and the electronics industry, he’ll describe the future for synthetic biologists whose goal is to engineer complex biological systems.

It was 1996 when Knight having decided that the next great technological revolution would be based not on electronics but on our ability to build and manipulate living systems  ran a summer program for DARPA exploring the promise of cellular computers.

“The report we produced from this was very well received,” Knight recalls. “It led to DARPA’s funding of a microbiology lab in my MIT laboratory. That was very interesting because all of my computer science colleagues were afraid I was going to poison them or kill them with bacteria.” “They seem to have all survived,” he laughs.  

In 2008, DARPA awarded Knight’s newly founded Ginkgo Bioworks its first major contract: $15 million to design synthetic probiotics that could reduce gastrointestinal problems in soldiers. Ginkgo today is building organisms to specification for customers in markets such as food, health and consumer goods. Last November, Ginkgo announced an unprecedented agreement in which Twist Bioscience will provide a minimum of 100 million base pairs of synthetic DNA to support Ginkgo’s rapid prototyping of new organisms in new fragrances and flavors, cosmetics, nutrition, and health.

Fireside Chat: Synthetic biology’s first 20 years and its prospects for the next 20.

After his keynote remarks, Knight will join his former PhD student, Ron Weiss, who is now director of the Synthetic Biology Center at MIT, in a Fireside Chat in which they’ll reflect on synthetic biology’s first 20 years and its prospects for the next 20.

Beginning his graduate studies at MIT in 1992 and leaving with his PhD in synthetic biology in 2001, Weiss worked closely with Knight through the early years of the field’s development. After eight years as a faculty member in Princeton’s electrical engineering department, he returned to MIT in 2009 as a professor of biological engineering and director of the Synthetic Biology Center.

A major focus of Weiss’s work is the synthesis of gene networks engineered to provide in vivo analog and digital logic computation. He’s also interested in programming cell aggregates to perform coordinated tasks using cell-cell communication with chemical diffusion mechanisms such as quorum sensing.

Engaged in both hands-on experimental work and software infrastructures for simulation and design work, Weiss has constructed and tested several novel in vivo biochemical logic circuits and intercellular communication systems.

Like Knight, Weiss appropriates in his research design principles from electrical engineering, such as abstraction, standardization, modularity, and computer aided design. “But we also spend considerable effort towards understanding what makes synthetic biology different from all other existing engineering disciplines and discovering new design and construction rules that are effective for this unique discipline.”

“To view cells as true ‘programmable’ entities, it’s essential to develop strategies for assembling devices and modules into intricate, customizable larger scale systems” he says. “We can expect the creation of such systems to lead to innovative approaches in such applications as bioremediation, sustainable energy production, biomedical therapies, and many others.”

Don’t miss these two pioneers of our field at the opening of SynBioBeta London 2016 on Wednesday, April 6. Tom Knight will deliver his keynote address, “Robustness and Reliability of Biological Systems,” at 1:15 p.m. His Fireside Chat with Ron Weiss will follow at 1:30 p.m.



Dan Forbush

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