October is a busy month in the synthetic biology calendar. SynBioBeta 2018 was the biggest and best of its kind, showcasing the strength of the international synthetic biology industry. Likewise, the iGEM Giant Jamboree is growing each year with hundreds of student representatives from all over the planet. The appetite for synthetic biology has never been greater. As the technology positions itself as integral to developing a sustainable bioeconomy, demand is rising for a well-trained generation of synthetic biologists to help industry meet government targets and sustainable development goals
In the UK, the synthetic biology sector got a kick-start in 2012 when it was named as one of “Eight Great Technologies” presented by Lord David Willetts, then Minister of State for Universities and Science. Development of a national synthetic biology roadmap led to the establishment of six new national centers for synthetic biology (SBRCs) and SynbiCITE – an industrially-focused national Innovation and Knowledge Centre which has just been funded for five more years.
SynbiCITE and the UK BioIndustry Association reported that, in the last five years, the UK government has funded £300 Million (USD $390 M) into the synthetic biology industry which now boasts over 200 companies, both new and long-established, employing a combined 1,300+ people. This links with the government goals to double the size of the UK bioeconomy by 2030. The synthetic biology industry, however, is crying out for trained workers to help fuel this expansion.
Professors Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont, Co-Directors of SynbiCITE, are active lecturers in the field and are keen to help develop the training of future generations of synthetic biologists. Prof Kitney commented that, “We are implementing the UK government’s recommendation in the latest UK Roadmap for synthetic biology ‘to build an expert workforce’. This is absolutely essential if we are to realize the UK’s potential in synthetic biology, a key driver of the bioeconomy, which is set to increase from £220 billion per annum to £440 billion per annum by 2030.”
The hunger for synthetic biology training in the UK is huge. The iGEM competition sees over 200 undergraduates participate each year in the UK alone. Earlier this year, CustoMem – a company developed from an iGEM project and supported by SynbiCITE – won £1.2 M ($1.6 M) in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program.
At Masters level, there are at least 10 courses nationwide, including the long-standing MRes/PhD program in Synthetic Biology at Imperial College. The course has been running since 2008 and has had over 120 students and around 70 PhDs graduating. These students are from both life science and physical science backgrounds, reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of synthetic biology. For example, the MRes at Imperial first brings each group of students up to the same level. Then it teaches experimental and theoretical systems biology, covering the biological mechanisms and mathematics behind them. Finally, the synthetic biology aspect is applied, which covers everything from biological circuit building to modelling theory, as well as how the technology applies to society and government policy. Industrial partnerships are also involved, allowing students to develop their network and build collaborations between academia and industry. This program and others like it produce more than 100 graduates per year, many of whom wish to continue to the doctoral level.
SynbiCITE itself offers a four-day MBA for synthetic biologists to develop their ideas into businesses, teaching them how to establish a company, gain investment and manage IP. They also offer a year-long LEAP Fellowship program. This program develops emerging leaders in the field of biotechnology, helping equip them for their future in shaping a global bioeconomy. Prof. Paul Freemont, Co-Director of SynbiCITE, explains that providing talent for the field is integral to SynbiCITE 2.0, the next phase of developing and safeguarding the future of UK synthetic biology.
“Training is at the core of synthetic biology globally where developing the next generation of synthetic biologists is essential to harness the capabilities of the field in tackling major societal challenges. The UK is well-placed to be a global leader in the translation and commercialization of synthetic biology but only if the new industry that we are developing has a well-trained and expert workforce. Therefore, the provision of PhD training in the form of Centers for Doctoral Training (CDTs) based in multiple leading UK synthetic biology research centers is essential to achieve this vision.”
A CDT can provide mass standardized training of doctoral candidates from a multidisciplinary background. The cohort experience also helps build networks and collaborations and, modelled on successful Masters programs, industrial placements can lead to successful future collaborations. The industrial need is for a generation of ‘biodesign’ synthetic biologists: experts with a broad range of skills, especially in coding and machine learning, but also modelling, engineering, genetics and biotechnology. The core principles of synthetic biology – Design, Build, Test, Learn – must be taught to this new generation and applied to meet the demands of an economy transitioning between unsustainable, petrochemical-based growth to that of a sustainable bioeconomy.
Establishment of further CDTs in synthetic biology would also enable the UK to catch up to the US in terms of synthetic biology training where CDTs are more common. Standardized training is commonplace at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where Dr. Tom Ellis of Imperial took a sabbatical earlier this year.
“In their bioengineering program in their first month they are all put on intensive Python boot camp for two weeks. Few of them build their gene circuits by hand pipetting anymore,” he explained, mentioning the use of high-tech equipment like the LabCyte Echo, a high-throughput device that pipettes liquid using sound waves. With coding and biodesign skills, it’s no surprise Caltech graduates are snapped up by the synthetic biology industry.
An informed source at the University of Bristol adds, “We have been very successful at attracting the best and brightest to the CDT. Combined with government investment, this has created incredible vibrancy and dynamism for the field. However, continued growth is absolutely dependent on feeding the pipeline, both with new science and we need new people coming into the field.”
While Masters level graduates are produced in coordinated programs in the UK and may even go on to doctoral level in those institutions, places are limited. Doctoral level candidates may need to find willing partners and funding on their own. Dedicated CDTs would greatly help in this matter, however there is currently an under-supply. Only one such CDT was funded in the UK and this found a huge appetite for synthetic biology training at the doctoral level.
“The current Synthetic Biology CDT is massively over-subscribed. Each intake we accept around 20 new students, but we get more than 10 times this number of applications,” says Prof. Antonis Papachristodoulou, the Program Director the synthetic biology CDT based jointly across the Universities of Warwick, Bristol and Oxford. The clear need for more postdoctoral level synthetic biologists in the UK has spurred the University of Manchester, UCL and Imperial College, London to propose their own coordinated PhD training in synthetic biology that would serve a growing bioeconomy.
More training centers are required to meet the massive demand and provide high-quality education as well as serve the industrial needs for synthetic biology and government goals for a sustainable bioeconomy. SynbiCITE continues to recognize the need for training the next generation of synthetic biologists in business as well as science to continue the flow of spinouts and startups in the field.
“Our training agenda as SynbiCITE 2.0 will be providing entrepreneurship training to CDTs to ensure that PhD students who have great ideas for translation can find a pathway to take those ideas forward,” Prof. Freemont assures.