Synthetic Biology 4.0
by Gregor Wolbring
October 15, 2008 http://www.innovationwatch.com/choiceisyours/choiceisyours-2008-10-15.htm
My very first column published in May 2006 was called Synthetic Biology 2.0, named after the 2006 conference of the synthetic biology community. I wrote the following year about the Synthetic Biology Conference 3.0 that took place at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland, in June 2007. This provided an opportunity to reflect on what happened between the two conferences. I would like to reflect now on the Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference that took place on October 10-12, 2008 at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
According to the conference webpage, “The mission of Synthetic Biology 4.0 is to bring together researchers who are working to:
- design and build biological parts, devices and integrated biological systems
- develop technologies that enable such work
- place this scientific and engineering research within its current and future social context”
The goal of placing scientific and engineering research in synthetic biology in its “current and future social context” is interesting. What does that mean, and what do the synthetic biology researchers see as the current and future social context?
Tidbits from the conference agenda include: “Cosmetic Production in Escherichia coli,” “Can We Build Biological Systems in Mammalian Cells with Predictable Properties?”, “Self-Sustainable Biosolar Cells Based on Bacterial Photosynthesis and Respiration.” “Engineering Living Systems for Nanotechnology,” “Chemical Synthetic Biology,” Synthetic Biology and the Pharmaceutical Industry” (by Jeff Way of Merck Serano), “Nanomedicine,” “Live Bacteria HIV Therapy.” “Rice Engineering,” and “Limits for Life on Earth.”
Biofuel was covered in many presentations, which does not come as a surprise.
A few bloggers have already written about the conference. In Synthetic Biology 4.0 – Not so live blog, part 1, Rob Carlson states: “At just over 600 attendees, SB 4.0 is more than twice as big as even 3.0, with just under half the roster from Asia.” He highlights the desktop gene printer as technically feasible, and believes that a prototype could be built within eight weeks. He also draws attention to other work presented at the meeting, including work on SARS and the artificial chromosome. More write-ups are to come in a few days.
Andrew Maynard wrote about the conference on his blog sharing his sense that “threaded through everything is this feeling of a grass-roots movement that truly believes that it can change the world from the bottom up.”
There are short references to the conference on Jonathan Cline’s 88 Proof Synth Bio Blog.
Surprisingly, the Nature blog and molecular system biology blog, which provided day-by-day coverage last year, have published nothing so far this year. Readers may want to monitor them for future references.
The NGO ETC Group hosted a panel on the Global Societal Impacts of Synthetic Biology in this year’s conference. It wrote about the conference on its blog, reflecting on what is different:“In some ways it’s a far cry from two years ago when civil society was turned away from the same Syn Bio confab meeting in California. On that occasion we had to resort to an open letter to prevent a disastrous self governance proposal going ahead. Those two years have changed nothing and changed everything. For the synthetic biology community themselves an unprecedented influx of commercial interest and funding has transformed Syn Bio into the new ‘IT’ industry for investors (Synvestors?). BP, Shell, General Motors, Du Pont, Chevron, Cargill, ADM, Marathon Oil and Goodyear are among the Fortune 500 firms now palling up with synthetic biology firms. BP even sunk 600 million dollars buying up access to University of California Berkely’s Syn Bio labs while also buying into Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc and the trickle of oil company executives to head up Syn Bio start ups is beginning to look like a small flood”..... “At the same time unfortunately nothing has changed when it comes to governance. Despite a smattering of reports, meaningful progress on establishing accountable oversight of Synthetic Biology has stalled and doesn’t look likely to start moving again any time soon. The Syn Bio express is steaming ahead with corporations firmly in the driving seat and no limits or terms and conditions set by society.”