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Are biofoundries the solution to synbio democratization?


A global network of biofoundries was announced last week. Could such an international effort help making synthetic biology more accessible and better concentrate resources?

One of the most appealing aspects of synthetic biology is the idea that, by applying engineering principles, the processes will become automated and researchers will spend more time designing experiments and analyzing results, rather than physically performing experiments. While this is a reality for some wealhy labs and companies such as Ginkgo and Zymergen, many researchers do not have access to  such a luxury. However, automation may become more widely available, and biofoundries may be the way to do that.

What is a biofoundry?

A foundry is a place where metal is melted and poured into special containers to obtain a certain shape. A biofoundry – biological foundry – is a place that bends and shapes biology to serve a certain need or reach a goal. In that space, there is no or specifications for a biofoundry. It could be described though as an integrated facility that can design, build, and test genetic constructs in high scale.

A typical biofoundry would rely heavily on automation, performing common and repetitive tasks in a high-throughput manner, dropping the cost and increasing efficiency. Ideally, all the work can be done locally at the biofoundry with minimal work input from a user. Starting from a certain amount of genetic designs, the foundry personnel should synthesize or order the DNA, make the constructs, transform the organism in question, select the correctly engineered strains, and evaluate the behavior and characteristics of each construct (using reporter systems, assays, metabolite detection, or some other custom-made techniques).

Why do we need foundries?

Modern synthetic biology can be extremely resource-consuming, especially if we want to test many possible solutions to a research question. Biofoundries can be a solution to this high, as they can achieve lower costs and reduce the time needed to generate and test a design. They constitute a more efficient use of equipment, as they can in theory work 24/7 with minimal input from the personnel. And they can be considered an infrastructure investment, where many research institutions and other stakeholder can combine forces (and funding) to obtain more expensive equipment. It therefore comes as no surprise that investing in biofoundries is among the suggestions on how to better enable the bioeconomy.

The Global Biofoundry Alliance

On May 9, the founding of a Global Biofoundry Alliance was announced. This network consists of 16 biofoundries around the world, and aims at better coordinating the facilities, share expertise, set common goals, and promote the collaboration and social standing of non-commercial biofoundries. The alliance aims to enable sharing of resources (using the openMTA), lower the operating costs, and tackle grand challenges through collaborative projects.

The challenges

A biofoundry is not a panacea to synthetic biology’s problems. The initial investment cost is rather high (in the case of the New South Wales biofoundry it was admitted that much more than the initial 2.5 million AUD investment is required). Resource sharing and extensive collaboration needs shared standards, a thorny issue in synthetic biology. And finally the biofoundries are distributed in a few countries (USA, United Kingdom, Denmark, Singapore, China, Japan, and Australia), making the availability restricted to part of the synthetic biology community.

Nevertheless, biofoundries have a role to play in synthetic biology – though cheap DNA synthesis and low-cost automated lab equipment can probably fill the same gaps. I am curious to see how these facilities will develop and how the researchers and industry will embrace them.

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