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.