Synthetic Components Network: Towards Synthetic Biology From The Bottom Up

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Chemistry

Abstract

Synthetic biology is a new research field that is emerging at the interface between the biological & physical sciences and engineering. Essentially, the field involves the generation of new biological and so-called biomimetic systems to create new functions not (yet) observed in biology. What does this mean? In essence, it is a new science that could lead to new biological and biology-like entities that could produce new drugs, fuels and materials. Many researchers joining this new area are taking what is termed a 'top-down' approach: that is, they are taking existing biological organisms (usually bacteria) and making them simpler by removing genes; or the scientists are encouraging them to perform new tasks by engineering in new sets of genes from other organisms. We propose to take the opposite approach, namely to build new synthetic biological systems from the bottom up. To do this we need to understand how biology assembles and organises its various molecules (proteins, DNA, sugars and so on) to create working cells and multi-cellular systems. In short, we aim to create molecular toolkits based on those that Nature has evolved, and then we will use these toolkits to assemble larger systems that perform new functions. As this is such a new field we will not simply march into the lab and get started with experiments. First, we propose to gather together a Network of scientists from different disciplines to help define the field and a sensible way forward within it. There are also good ethical reasons why will do this first as explained below. Such new developments will always carry lay and public concerns, and a field labelled 'synthetic biology' is bound to raise some eyebrows if not alarm bells. As scientists it is important for us to conduct this research in order (1) to test the limits in our understanding of natural biological systems, and (2) to tap any potential technology developments that could benefit mankind and the environment. This is particularly so with an interface area such as synthetic biology, which promises much in terms of new materials, biofuels and medicines. Therefore, as a Network, we will endeavour to address any potential public concerns and issues raised in the new field at a very early stage. To do this, our Network will not only include scientists and engineers but also have ethicists, philosophers and academics expert in engaging the public in science and technology amongst its membership. This will allow informed debate of the potential issues of public concerns, as well as a thorough examination of the possible benefits and shortcomings of any new emerging technology. In addition, we have entered agreements with national science centres, including @Bristol and the Think Tank, Birmingham, to hold public events and create new installations to raise public awareness of the new area.

Technical Summary

The Network's main focuses will be (1) the challenge of creating synthetic, self-organising biological systems from the bottom up/that is, the generation of toolkits of self-assembling and functional components for synthetic biology/and (2) developing concepts and creating intellectual frameworks and routes towards tackling and surmounting this challenge. In addition, and importantly, the Network will tackle potential difficulties in this new field such as language barriers between the various participating disciplines, and potential public concerns. In order to address the science and these emerging issues, the Network comprises biologists, chemists, computer scientists, ethicists, engineers and physicists. Network members will meet and engage with the public through four main types of activity: 1. 6-monthly Discussion Meetings; 2. Annual Conferences; 3. Regular researcher exchanges between participating research labs; 4. Public engagement events. The Network will be managed by a Management Committee comprising scientists and administrators representing the main hubs of the Network and its key disciplines. Co-funding provided by EPSRC and AHRC under the Networks in Synthetic Biology initiative

Publications

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Zaccai NR (2011) A de novo peptide hexamer with a mutable channel. in Nature chemical biology

 
Description This was a Synthetic Biology Network(ing) grant. No outputs in terms of paper were expected. However, this did lead to successful RC bids for the Synthetic Biology CDT and the Bristol SBRC, BrisSynBio.
Exploitation Route Yes, see above re. CDT and SBRC.
Sectors Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/brissynbio/
 
Description Biodesign for the bioeconomy: UK Synthetic Biology strategic plan 2016
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact This strategic plan, published by the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC), aims to accelerate the commercialisation of synthetic biology products and services with clear public benefit, building upon the strength of the UK research base. It focuses on five key areas of strategic importance: Accelerating industrialisation and commercialisation Maximising the capability of the innovation pipeline Building an expert workforce Developing a supportive business environment, and Building value from national and international partnerships.
URL https://connect.innovateuk.org/documents/2826135/31405930/BioDesign+for+the+Bioeconomy+2016+-+DIGITA...
 
Description Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Genome editing call for evidence (Meacham)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact Genome editing techniques such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system are transforming many areas of biological research. The techniques have been embraced with enthusiasm by many researchers but have also provoked debate about possible future uses, including in human germ line modification, ecological engineering, and novel plant breeding. This project is being carried out in stages considering first the impact of genome editing in research and the range of questions to which this gives rise, and then developing practical ethical guidance for specific field(s) of application.
URL http://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/genome-editing/
 
Description Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Naturalness report (Meacham)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact When people describe something as natural, they might mean it is good, acceptable, safe or healthy. When something is described as unnatural, people can mean it is bad, unacceptable or dangerous. Views about what is natural or unnatural can affect the development and uptake of new technologies. This project examined how ideas about naturalness feature in and affect public discussions about the ethics of science, technology and medicine. The recommendations aim to improve communication and understanding between people with different views about naturalness.
URL http://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/naturalness/
 
Description Innovation and Knowledge Centre in Synthetic Biology (Co-I on application)
Amount £5,074,187 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/L011573/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2018
 
Description Synthetic Biology Centre for Doctoral Training (Co-I)
Amount £4,705,815 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/L016494/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 09/2022
 
Description Synthetic Biology Research Centres: BrisSynBio
Amount £13,400,000 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/L01386X/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2014 
End 07/2019
 
Description Parliamentary Science Committee presentation 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Approximately 200 people attended the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting on the 17th June 2014. The audience included Parliamentarians, members of scientific bodies, science-based industry and academics.
http://www.scienceinparliament.org.uk/sample-page/programme/
This meeting has subsequently been written up and included in the Autumn 2014 Science in Parliament (Vol 71 No 4: pgs 20 - 26) publication.

Unknown
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.scienceinparliament.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Autumn-Contents-page.pdf
 
Description Pint of Science Festival: Dark side of protein science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As part of the Pint of Science Festival, researchers from BrisSynBio participated in the 'Dark Matters' event. The event was held in Friska café, Bristol, and involved scientific crafts and discussions between researchers and the public.
Director of BrisSynBio, Professor Dek Woolfson, along with Gail Bartlett, Jack Heal, Drew Thomson and Chris Wood organised the event 'Dark Matters'. Analogous to the idea of dark matter, protein science focuses on the protein structures that could theoretically exist but are not present in natural biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/publicengagementstories/stories/2015/dark-side-protein-science.html
 
Description Pint of Science, Bristol, UK, May 2015, "From galaxies of stars to a new universe of proteins" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Part of the Pint of Science 2015 Programme in Bristol. About 60 people attended.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://pintofscience.co.uk/event/dark-matters/
 
Description RSC: Synthetic Biology: The Free Edinburgh Festival Fringe Show (Heal) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Supported by an award from the Royal Society of Chemistry,the Edinburgh Fringe Festival hosted its first science stand-up on the subject of synthetic biology. Jack Heal's 'Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?' show took a comedic approach to genome engineering, de-extinction and more - with the crowd helping to shape its direction with questions and discussion. The show considered questions from artificial life to Jurassic Park, and ran for 21 days.
Purpose: To interest the public in science.
Outcome: The comic felt freshly enthused about doing [synthetic biology] research.
Reflection: Free shows encourage people to take risks in their choices of which shows to see. This spirit is perfect for science outreach events which have to try hard to avoid becoming 'by scientists, for scientists'.

None yet.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
URL http://www.bristol.ac.uk/publicengagementstories/stories/2016/jack-heal.html?platform=hootsuite
 
Description Synthetic proteins for a synthetic biology: faster, fitter, stronger 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Better Humans Science Café, Bristol, UK, October 5 2016, "Synthetic proteins for a synthetic biology: faster, fitter, stronger"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description The rise and rise of synthetic biology in the UK: science, policy and public perception 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited to Houses of Parliament, London, UK, June 2014, to speak to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.scienceinparliament.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/17-June-AGM-agenda.pdf