Synthetic biology is one of the most rapidly advancing fields in the world today. From universal vaccine development and CRISPR-Cas9 applications to agritech and biofuels, synthetic biology is establishing itself as a crucial tool to innovate for a sustainable future.
At SynBioBeta 2018 in October, attendees had the opportunity to experience various synthetic biology technologies and trends. Apparent throughout the meeting was the need for an increasingly large set of interdisciplinary expertise — whether an ability to consider societal impact or utilize computing skills, teams of synthetic biologists truly derive their power from incorporating a variety of perspectives and expertise.
Because innovations in synthetic biology yield far-reaching impacts, the industry is inarguably the next frontier of science and society — creating a monumental responsibility for scientists to apply a comprehensive skill set in their work. Here are some of the top skills we think synthetic biologists need to make a lasting impact on our world.
A fundamental understanding of biology
Surprisingly, some of the newest entrants in synthetic biology are computer science or engineering majors who are inadequately trained in biology. So, even though this may seem “basic,” it’s worth noting — you need to understand biology to play in synthetic biology. Synthetic biologists of 2019 should be grounded in one or several core disciplines: genetics, systems biology, microbiology, or chemistry.
The ability to leverage engineering and computer science
Grounding in biology is important, but to break down biological complexity and standardize it into parts, or design biological components de novo, synthetic biologists must also leverage engineering and its quantitative approach. Computational skills will also be critical to make sense of the vast amounts of data being manipulated and analyzed by today’s synthetic biologists. From automating lab processes to applying machine learning methods to extrapolate patterns and build biological process models, computer science holds the key to efficient advancements in synthetic biology.
The skills to manipulate DNA
DNA is the language of life. Scientific understanding and ability to manipulate this molecule has significantly progressed since the age of Gregor Mendel. Today, reading and writing DNA has become a standard in the industry and is utilized in a plethora of applications, from data storage to antibody creation. Following the central biology dogma of DNA → RNA → proteins, DNA opens doors to further molecular discoveries and is an indispensable resource for synthetic biologists.
Communication skills to facilitate education and accessibility
Synthetic biologists sometimes do truly create the stuff of science fiction. The complexity of such innovations often leads to misinformation and fear among the general public. Scientists must be able to frame ideas and conversations in the appropriate context — otherwise, public distrust in synthetic biology technologies could be crippling to the field.This will be a difficult task, especially in an era littered with fake news, but it is crucial if synthetic biologists hope to see their innovations reach their full potential.
Interdisciplinary mindsets and teams
Synthetic biology is a discipline of seemingly unprecedented complexity. Synthetic biologists must possess a mindset incorporating numerous scientific approaches and rooted in a broad and deep knowledge base — this is imperative to hone a problem-solving skill set that addresses all the challenges of science of today and the future. Of course, such a diverse skill set is impossible without diversity of the people — those with different backgrounds bring different expertise to the table.
An ability to manage
Diverse, successful synthetic biology teams need an effective leader at the helm, too. Entrepreneurial synthetic biologists starting their own company must have an ability to manage people and solve “people problems,” not just synthetic biology problems. IQ is not enough — a healthy dose of EQ and communication skills will go a long way toward leading successful synthetic biology teams.
The ability to discern pressing problems and to establish product-market fit
Sometimes, choosing a problem to address as a synthetic biologist can be difficult. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Considering impact when designing projects is essential. Of course, synthetic biologists on an academic track will benefit from razor focus on relevant scientific questions that don’t necessarily lead to rapid solutions to the world’s most pressing problems yet contribute critical information to the field. One the other hand, entrepreneurs must be forward thinking and market-focused: without a market, their product will never have an impact on society — and that is the ultimate goal of synthetic biology.
An ability to sell
Unpleasant truth though it may be, money is necessary to fuel innovation — and synthetic biology can be very expensive. Although fundraising can be a burden, effective funding pitches are critical for securing the financial resources to bring a product to market. Therefore, synthetic biologists will benefit from honing their abilities to market themselves and their work — both to investors and to consumers. This is especially critical for work that may not be as captivating and flashy as CRISPR-Cas9 yet carries equal — or more — impact on the future of our planet and beyond. Additionally, an intrinsic effort by the synthetic biology community to drive down costs and maximize usage of resources and productivity will increase the sustainability of synthetic biology and facilitate faster, more successful research-to-market timelines.
Awareness of technological implications on society and an ability to work with policy
As all-consuming as the pure science can be, synthetic biologists cannot conduct their experiments without an active effort to consider the implications of their work on society. Some of the technologies being developed to speed research and reduce product time to market — such as desktop DNA synthesizers and an increasing use of AI to aid in biological measurements and data analysis — could also one day make it easier for non-experts to utilize synthetic biology for good or for bad. Synthetic biologists must build into their work safeguards against potential misuse — and this includes operating within, and contributing to, the regulatory framework of the policies put into place for the safety of mankind. As discussed by Dr. Ali Nouri and Shahram Seyedin-Noor in a recent SynBioBeta op/ed, “building on – and going beyond – the existing risk mitigation framework” will set a powerful example other sectors can follow.
A commitment to pushing the envelope
Constant innovation is the soul food of synthetic biology. The field is young, yet it boasts immense achievements already. Above all, a commitment to marching on and synthesizing groundbreaking technology is necessary to continue the phenomenal pace of progress and avoid complacency.
What other skills do you think synthetic biologists will need in 2019? Leave your comments below:4