To tackle climate challenges, a biology mindset is needed.
Simultaneously with COP27, two excellent symposia deeply relevant in the context of climate adaptation took place here the region: the “Synthetic Biology: scalability, implementation and governance”, organized by the Pufendorf Institut (Lund) and the Annual Plant Biologics Network (PBN) Symposium (PLEN, Copenhagen), looking at advances in the use of biologics in farms.
There were so many interesting and thought-provoking presentations in both meetings, too many to review them all in one blog, as it would get extremely long. We’ll start here with a few of the important “take-home” messages from both Symposia.
Brice Laurent spoke about the importance of moving away from approaches that tend to consider impacts locally instead of looking for global impact, and crystalize unhelpful “us and them” paradigms. Laurent wants to work instead on “ensuring the legitimacy of public institutions and public trust” and on having the regulator addressing the themes that are of concern for the public. Laurent was asked by the ANSES to create a new department for social and economic analyses and openness to society.
One challenge the industries need to address is how to make a career in regulation attractive for excellent scientists. When interacting with the regulatory authorities, biotechs find that there are long waiting timelines because of low numbers of staff, and often, the internal experts are overworked. An approach based on inclusivity, interdisciplinarity and more transparency about the goals and decision-making processes may be a step towards making a job in regulatory affairs more attractive for scientists.
Eric Liegeois in his excellent presentation of the legal framework for plant protection products at the PBN Symposium, said the regulators want to encourage pre-submission meetings of novel plant protection products, to clarify expectations from the parties. This is good news.
Synthetic Biology in the real world:
Genome sequencing and DNA synthesis, two tools of Synthetic Biology continue to become faster, cheaper and better: longer/deeper oligonucleotide sequence is read/synthetized, powering the synthetic biology projects. Moore’s law now can apply to genome sequencing: 10 years and 2.700 billion dollars was the cost of sequencing the first human genome in the human genome project. In the year 2022 it took 5 hours and 10 minutes for a AI-supported team (costing a non-disclosed amount in dollars) to do the same work.
Synthetic biology may one day “synthesise” a new organism. For the time being, it synthetizes systems in existing ones. The genes of existing organisms, mostly of microbes, but also fungi and plants are being modified to accommodate novel genes that regulate metabolic pathways for industrial use. There is interest in continuing to broaden the range of organisms used in industrial production. People will need a broad range of molecules, polymers and materials that can be made through biotechnology, therefore synthetic biologists and biotechnology engineers will need to be able to tap into the genetic resources of a broad range of microorganisms to respond to societal needs.
The real world cases of application of synthetic biology provides a glimpse of its power in delivering economically competitive sustainable processes and products. To achieve the gains, it takes, as Lanzatech summarized in their presentation: 100 000s of data points, 10s of years (Lanzatech is more than 17 years old) and lots of money, and many collaborators providing resources to the project over the years it takes to go, as Lanzatech did, from the lab, through pilot scale, demo scale and commercial production plant.
It is important to ensure democratization of use and applications of synthetic biology. Since 19 years, the independent NGO iGEM Foundation has contributed to “the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open, collaborative, and cooperative community.”
Did you know that Gingko Bioworks is IGEM 2002 Alumnus (Team MIT 2006)? I didn’t.
One hundred and fifty startup companies were founded through the iGEM EPIC competitions over the years. The organization is paying particular attention to fostering a mentality of world-class biosafety and biosecurity, while supporting the emergence of the next generation of leaders.
The PBN Symposium program included a section called Testing Biologics. The field use of biologics for crop protection presents challenges that go from the collection of data to measure products’ performance and, to bearing in consideration the mindset and culture of the users, which is different in different parts of the world. Understanding, regulating, and adopting biologics for field use requires a change in paradigm from all relevant stakeholders from a “chemistry” mindset to a “biology” mindset.
The future of synthetic biology and the shift to bioindustrial approaches is now, and it holds much promise. The current climate crisis is full of opportunities. Together, we can rise to the challenges of scaling and implementing these solutions.