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Maintaining the SynBio Community

In this final part of our review of 2015, we look at issues related to growth of the community. Last year saw the first synbio institute established in Singapore (SynCTI) and the investment by the UK government in centres at Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Warwick. In the past, synbio researchers were able to create a community feel due to the relatively “small” number of practitioners. But more and more labs are using synbio tools that are becoming synonymous with standard molecular biology techniques. The big questions are – how do we still keep the community feel? and what factors are important moving forward?

1. iGEM

GEM from above. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.
iGEM 2015 from above. Image Credit: iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight.

The annual iGEM competition has been key in fostering a community of young scientists with an interest in synbio. Since the inaugural competition in 2004 which involved five teams, the competition has grown to include 280 teams from over 30 countries (as covered on our blog by Grant). As the competition continues to evolve some have been considering ways it could be improved, with blogs asking if iGEM promotes reflective thinking and if the cost too high (the last post includes a reply from the organisers); what is a ‘good size’ for the competition is another consideration that is likely to be encountered soon. However, looking to this year Dominic Berry commented “[the most interesting development of 2015 was] that there will be a plant track at iGEM 2016, because plant engineering competitions have a long history, and it will be fascinating to see what the iGEM version looks like.” This is a good example of iGEM bringing together disparate fields of biotechnology that don’t often interact, and is recognition of the growing importance of synbio to the plant science community. iGEM remains a fantastic competition, there are now thousands of alumni and it will continue to play a big part in maintaining and fostering the new generations of synbio communities.

2. Growing Connections

Jiaqi Wu, an undergraduate at Haynes lab at ASU at the poster session.
Jiaqi Wu, an undergraduate at Haynes lab at ASU at the Synberc fall retreat poster session.

Conferences, events and workshops are great places for affirming ties; in addition to synbiobeta and Synberc fall retreat covered on this blog, a lot happened last year. A number of events made a big impression on synbio community members and are worth checking out in 2016: For Prof. Eriko Takano the GRC SynBio was the best meeting again [in 2015] with great talks and atmosphere to strengthen old ties and start new ones.” Ivan Reyna-Llorens nominated the #OpenPlantForum as “[it] set the basis for what is to come in plant synthetic biology” and Kostas Vavitsas stated “the event I enjoyed the most this year was the International Synthetic and Systems Biology Summer School in Taormina, Italy. We had lectures from and could interact with pioneers of synthetic biology, such as Adam Arkin, Jef Boeke, and Zach Serber from Zymergen just to mention a few. Another plus was the large amount of participants from different disciplines. I think this course marks the point where I really started thinking in terms of synbio, and I strongly recommend this year’s course to anyone even remotely interested in synthetic biology.”

In the UK Dr. Jose I. Jimenez commented “From my personal perspective it was great to take part in Synthetic Biology UK 2015. This event was organised by SynBio academics in the UK trying to build a community feeling for the discipline. It had the vibrant and energetic atmosphere of a young field of research thriving with new ideas and people willing to contribute. I have to admit that, despite being local, the high level was a surprise and also helped to establish interesting collaborations with other researchers.”

3. Engaging With The Public

One of the big institutional changes that occurred during 2015 which is likely to impact upon the synbio research community was the transformation of the Synberc research program into a non-profit consortium. Synberc kindly provided a statement, the first part of which dealt with the aims of the new organization, and perceived areas of importance for the synbio community:

Synberc is a ten-year, multi-institutional NSF Engineering Research Center founded in 2006 to help lay the foundations for the then-nascent field of synthetic biology. It represents one of the US’s largest early investments in synthetic biology. Over the last ten years, Synberc successfully developed many key technologies, trained a generation of synthetic biologists, and established a strong industrial-academic synthetic biology community.

As the field of synthetic biology has matured, and as Synberc’s NSF funding comes to an end, we have the opportunity to tackle a new set of leadership challenges within the broader synthetic biology community. As part of this transition, we are establishing the Engineering Biology Research Consortium, or EBRC. This independent non-profit organization that will develop visions for the synthetic biology research community, identify research areas of greatest potential impact, and roadmap specific goals toward them. EBRC will catalyze and support collaborative research and education projects that advance the field. EBRC will also engage with policymakers and the broader public about the challenges in areas like safety, ethics, and environment that we must address.

The last point has been emphasised to me in the process of compiling these reviews – the excitement surrounding scientific progress is tempered by repeated calls for caution, with concern about both the ethics and safety of developments ranging from gene drives to bioweapons and human gene editing. The calls are often loudest from voices outside the immediate scientific community, and represent a challenge that will require greater engagement to ensure continued support, with the example of European responses to GM crops a warning from the past.

In 2015 the BBSRC funded a project titled “Enabling the conversion on novel biotech” to investigate this issue, interviewing people ranging from bio-hackers to academics and NGO campaigners. Anna Warrington, who headed the project writes “two things quickly became clear: everybody was considering different things in their decision-making. Very few people, if any, were thinking holistically… No one is working to understand each other’s perspectives, especially during decision-making. So the conversation is confrontational and often frustrating for everyone involved.”

Concerningly, they found “there is a very real lack of accessible information on the application of synthetic biology” stating “we strongly urge people in this field to make more information accessible.” In a world where synthetic biologists are starting to produce technologies that can transform society, and science is being reported as dangerous or unethical, this is a big worry. In a follow-up Anna suggested projects such as Thing Explainer” by Randall Monroe of xkcd, and Dr. Quantum on wave-particle duality as good examples of accessible information. Her colleague cited pesticides in perspective as a poor example, commenting “there are many complex issues to boil down for consumers, but I’d argue this website doesn’t get the balance right – it’s not really very genuine at all, and over-simplifies a LOT, while ignoring more recent research and the bigger questions.

Mike Childs of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, who was also involved in the conversion on novel biotech, commented “my view of the synbio issue this year is that a) it’s broken out into the public domain, b) but it passes most people  by, c) those that notice are not really invited to discuss or debate it, and d) if the research in this area is to be truly useful and/or not come off the rails in some horrendous media crash then there needs to be much greater effort to resource and enable deliberative discussion.

4. Openness, Sharing and Inclusivity

The second part of the synberc statement provided some thoughts about how the community they helped establish can be maintained:

 Synthetic biology has changed in two important ways over the past ten years. First, the practitioner community has grown. What was once a small tribe of researchers has grown to encompass researchers in fields like computer science, molecular biology, chemistry, and even social science. Organizations like EBRC must be broadly inclusive to have impact. How we balance such inclusivity against the small-tribe feel we’ve enjoyed in the past is an open question. One important component is maintaining an ethos of openness and sharing at the forefront of science and technology. Second, the products of synthetic biology are making their way to market. Synthetic biology addresses important social challenges that will impact people’s lives directly. It is essential that we develop means for the research community to engage the public as synthetic biology goes from concept to reality.”

Keeping a small tribe feel will be a difficult task, whether this is necessary, or if the loss of a close knit community is the inevitable consequence of a maturing field is debatable. Either way – openness, sharing and inclusiveness sound like good foundations for future.

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