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Is Synthetic Biology rapidly becoming the brightest star in a changing world?

One of the UK Government’s eight great technologies that support UK science strengths and business capabilities, is synthetic biology. I attended (and SfAM supported) the first UK Synthetic Biology conference on 1-3 September, hosted by the Biochemical Society under the umbrella of the Royal Society of Biology. The diversity and multidisciplinary nature of the research presented was striking, and it was clear from the short time I spent at this meeting, the community were excited to have a forum in which to gather, share ideas and enhance collaborations.

The range of subjects presented, as well as the range of potential solutions to global problems, was vast: from materials science in space (3D Printing of advanced biocomposites on earth and beyond, Lynn Rothschild, Brown University, Providence, USA), to molecular biology (Foundations for synthetic biology: from modular parts to modular genomes, Tom Ellis, Imperial College London) to biological polymers (Silks in the context of synthetic biology, Fritz Vollrath, Oxford University) and engineering (Linking synthetic biology to manufacture: engineering tool to evaluate the process performance of designer biocatalysts, Lye, G.J., Ward, J., Hailes, H. C., Dalby, P. A.., Baganz, F., Micheletti, M., University College, London).

I was there for the microbiology. There was work from a team at Edinburgh University, (M. V. Jensen and S. Rosser), looking at “Increasing Shewanella* biofilm formation for increased microbial fuel cell output.” and a team from the University of Surrey (M Salvador, J. Kim, J. Gonzalez and J Jiminez) presented work on “Optimization of the cellular economy of Pseudomonas putida for plastic recycling”.

Many of SfAM’s Environmental Microbiology lectures have synthetic biology at their heart. Our forthcoming lecture, which will be given by Professor Kenneth H Nealson, will look at the phenomenon of extracellular electron transport (EET) of microbes – an intriguing capability which researchers aim to harness for bioelectricity generation.

The field of synthetic biology is a relatively recent and definitely burgeoning one, not without it’s ethical issues and questions. In a debate event forming part of Biology Week 2015, scientists will ask: “How far could it go, how far should it go?” and will examine the ethical challenges faced by many in the field.

Yet, the potential this field has to find real applications to solve global challenges, is vast and complex. In the same way synthetic biology harnesses attributes of biological systems, scientists can harness the multidisciplinary nature of this field, to find truly innovative solutions to the problems we face. Forming the basis of over 25% of the content of the recent UK Synthetic Biology Conference, microbiology is at the heart of much of the synthetic biology work that’s taking place across the globe. To me, this is a clear demonstration of applied microbiology in action.

*Shewanella is named after Dr James M Shewan, a past President of the Society – he reigned from 1969-1971.

2015 and beyond

In January of this year, myself and the Executive Committee and Chief Editors spent a busy and productive day in London establishing the future of the Society.

We looked at the activity of the Society from a number of different perspectives and came up with a solid set of aims, working principles, objectives and actions.

Our global aims are important, high-level and ambitious. For example, we aim to ensure that applied microbiology is a distinct and recognized field of scientific expertise with a high profile amongst all stakeholders. We aim to ensure scientists working in applied microbiology are trained to become excellent scientists and have the resources, facilities and legislative environment to flourish. And of course we aim for applied microbiology to remain a global activity unhindered by geographical, political, social and economic constraints.

As an organization, we aim to be the premier network for applied microbiologists in the UK and internationally. We also create best-in-class networking across disciplines, and support early career researchers through our Early Career Scientists Committee.

But with these ambitions, what we don’t want to lose is our friendly, broad, inclusive, open and generous culture. We think it’s our approachable and friendly ethos that makes us unique among similar organizations and is one of our important strengths.

Many of you will be familiar with our Vision, Mission and Values, but for those who need a reminder, they are:

Vision: SfAM envisages a future where applied microbiology research and development is strong in the UK and beyond, and the applications of microbiology contribute significantly to all global challenges facing humanity, including infectious diseases; the changing environment; sustainability of energy, food, water and land resources; and economic growth.

Mission: SfAM will achieve its vision by being the voice of microbiology and advancing, for the benefit of the public, the science of microbiology in its application to the environment, human and animal health, agriculture and industry. It will work in partnership with sister organizations and microbiological bodies to ensure that microbiology and microbiologists contribute to evidence-based policymaking within the UK, in Europe and worldwide. SfAM will build on a strong history of microbiology in the UK and will move forward in step with the next generation of microbiologists.

Values: SfAM is “The Friendly Society” and will always offer value for money. We are modern, innovative and progressive; we value integrity, honesty and respect; and we seek to promote excellence and professionalism, and to inspire the next generation of microbiologists.

The overarching message of our strategy is about support and promotion: support of applied microbiologists globally and at all stages of your career, and promotion of the importance of applied microbiology in solving global grand challenges.

A large part of our strategy is built around engagement. A membership organization is virtually meaningless without its Members, so engaging with you is a big priority for us. Having a strategic framework to underpin our work means that all our stakeholders, Members, Trustees and staff have a clear direction. So as the detail of our strategy is established, you’ll hear more detail, and we want to engage with you to help shape that direction.

 

Science and the general election

For those of you who remain undecided today, on election day, here is a quick guide to the science policies of the main political parties:

  1. Campaign for Science and Engineering

A thorough guide to what the parties are saying about science and engineering policy, as well as three briefings and a list of ten key actions they think are required from the next government to champion science and engineering.

  1. British Science Association

A series of ten minute video interviews on their own YouTube channel with representatives of the main political parties who lay out their science policies were they to form the next government.

  1. Society of Biology

A useful web page with key facts demonstrating the value of the life sciences in the UK and their contribution to improving lives, creating jobs and driving investment and growth. There is also a video of their election debate and an environmental policy debate run by the British Ecological Society, among others.

  1. Media

Articles from the Guardian and Times Higher Education describing science policies ahead of the general election.

I hope this has proven helpful as a quick guide for the undecided. What the political landscape will look like tomorrow remains unknown, as does the impact this outcome will have upon science, in particular applied microbiology.

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