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10 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:32pm

Growing strong

Lionel Clarke, co-chair of the Engineering Biology Leadership Council, says the UK is at the forefront in the field

By Lionel Clarke

Synthetic biology is helping accelerate the development of effective solutions to many health, environmental and sustainable manufacturing challenges being faced around the world today. The UK can justifiably claim to be a global leader in aligning and coordinating a government-endorsed approach to the development of synthetic biology and its commercial application. It has produced more research publications on the topic than every other country except the US. Within the past decade, around 150 synthetic biology-related start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises – the main commercial development channels of this novel technology – have been formed in the UK, attracting over £1.5bn private investment.

Such progress is testament to a massive collective effort, sustained over many decades. The UK’s legacy of cutting-edge genomics research derives from Crick and Watson’s 1953 discovery that the double-helix encodes information and its subsequent interpretation in the Human Genome Project (HGP) half a century later. Significantly decreasing costs of DNA sequencing made possible in the wake of the HGP, and the consequent capacity to generate masses of information-rich data facilitated the subsequent rapid growth in research. By harnessing rapid developments in data handling and automation while applying clear engineering principles and standards to assist predictability, the concept of synthetic biology – as a technological platform to transform the development of novel biological systems from an empirical process into a digital biodesign and automated construction process – could be realised.

The need to develop effective solutions extremely rapidly in response to the Covid-19 global pandemic has posed the most challenging test – but also the greatest opportunity – for synthetic biology to date. Previously, developing and manufacturing vaccines would typically have necessitated years of empirical effort. Facilitated by the latest synthetic biology techniques, candidate vaccines have been designed in silico, constructed, screened and optimised in just weeks, using the genetic code of the virus as the starting point, bypassing the need to receive physical samples or to cultivate the virus. Techniques using plants as vaccine factories had already been developed, providing a timely option for rapid vaccine production. Other therapies and diagnostic approaches are being developed at an unprecedented rate. Robotic platforms have been reconfigured, permitting thousands of diagnostic tests to be carried out daily.

The availability of such cutting-edge resources today stems largely from the vision of academics more than fifteen years ago followed by a succession of national and international meetings, including workshops co-sponsored by the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering and their counterpart learned societies in the US and China in 2010-11. A public dialogue helped determine UK public interests, concerns and expectations. Following the publication of the UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap in 2012, dedicated financial support from the government and research councils helped establish six synthetic biology research centres to complement the original research centre at Imperial College, together with a centre for doctoral training, a set of biofoundries for genome synthesis and a national centre (“SynbiCITE”) to assist the translation and commercialisation of synthetic biology. Informed by the public dialogue and recommended in the roadmap, plans to assist the development and application of responsible research and innovation practices from the earliest stages of investigation were embedded in every research programme.

The UK Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC) was established to oversee the effective delivery of the key Roadmap recommendations, with a mandate to update plans as needed in the light of ongoing developments and learnings. It was constituted to be co-chaired by an industrialist and senior government minister, initially the Rt Hon David Willetts, author of the prescient 2013 “Eight great technologies” policy.

An online synthetic biology special interest group, open to all, was established to facilitate connectivity with the wider community. This group expanded rapidly to more than 1,000 members – academics, industrialists and other interested individuals. In 2016, the Leadership Council, co-chaired at the time by George Freeman MP, minister for the
life sciences, issued a synthetic biology UK strategy document, “Biodesign for the Bioeconomy”. This provided a basis for further engagement with government, supporting its Industrial Strategy and contributing to the development of the UK bioeconomy strategy, launched in December 2018 with the specific goal of doubling the economic contribution of the bioeconomy to the UK by 2030.

In 2019 the SBLC published “Synthetic Biology in the UK 2009-2019 – A Decade of Rapid Progress” summarising the many achievements and commercial applications generated to date. It became apparent that not only had all the main developments envisaged in the roadmap exercise been addressed at least in part within the timeframes set out, but scientific progress had been far greater than anticipated at the outset. For example, rapid, precise, gene editing via CRISPR-Cas9 had not yet been published when the roadmap was written, and the potential for artificial intelligence to aid the processes of machine learning, core to the operation of the automated design-build-test-learn cycle, had not been factored in.

Applications being developed in response to the Covid-19 crisis may be capturing the headlines at present, but this intense focus on rapid technology development and delivery of effective solutions within the health sector is simultaneously honing new skills and techniques that may be applied to the many other challenges also now being faced in developing a more sustainable future as outlined within the UK bioeconomy strategy. To address this new phase of development, the Leadership Council, with its current co-chairman, Nadhim Zahawi MP, has been renamed and reconstituted as the UK Engineering Biology Leadership Council.

Engineering biology is an overarching term that incorporates ongoing basic research and development – synthetic biology – and industrial deployment. It embraces the full range of technologies that must be harnessed to translate biodesign into commercially viable operations, scaling up and out via innovative and distributable operations and generating new jobs and skills capable of delivering widespread economic prosperity. The Bioeconomy Strategy 2030 represents an important stage-gate upon the journey towards establishing manufacturing capabilities no longer dependent upon fossil energy and petrochemical components but instead based upon sustainable biofeedstocks, key to delivering the
2050 national goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

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