SEB Synthetic Biology Conference 2014

02 March 2014 - By: Charis Cook

SEB Synthetic Biology Conference 2014

By Charis Cook

Many of the talks at the SEB Synthetic Biology conference began with the classic definition of synthetic biology: ‘The design or redesign of biological systems, circuits or parts.’ Throughout the conference however it was increasingly clear that this definition does not reflect the exciting reality of synthetic biology research and its applications.

John Love, Associate Professor at the University of Exeter and SEB Cell Section Chair, organised this year’s SEB Cell Symposium meeting to showcase the aspect of synthetic biology he finds most inspiring. “You never know where the next big thing will come from,” he said, “so we have to be inclusive.” Synthetic biology breaks down traditional barriers between disciplines and career stages, and between academia and industry.

The theme of inclusiveness certainly came across during SEB Synthetic Biology. Nearly every speaker was supported by industry as well as government funding agencies, and undergraduate science made an unusually significant contribution to the programme – the undergraduate synthetic biology competition iGEM was mentioned in nearly every presentation. 

Chris French focused his talk on commercial collaborations, including the Arsenic Biosensor (, resulting from Edinburgh’s iGEM project, while Darren Nesbeth explained how the UCL iGEM team works alongside citizen scientists at London’s Hackspace. 

Being inclusive means finding new ways of working. Some synthetic biology research has huge commercial value, and intellectual property is a traditional sticking point between universities and other businesses. SEB Synthetic Biology proved it is possible to overcome these problems. Representatives from the Universities of Exeter, Bristol and Imperial College London all presented research arising from productive collaborations with industry. 

Financial considerations are also a potential stumbling block to an inclusive community, as undergraduates and small research groups may not have the funds to access paywalled resources or services. Development of open source software and openness to collaboration was a major theme of talks at SEB Synthetic Biology, from DNA assembly with Arturo Casini’s assembly standard or Edinburgh iGEM’s Genabler, to parts sharing via iGEM. A comprehensive web-based synthetic biology information system, SynBIS, developed at Imperial College London is intended to equip synthetic biologists with resources for everything from experimental design to data dissemination, and will be made available to the synthetic biology community in summer 2014. 

Despite the huge potential for impact in industry and business and the many good relationships between academic and industrial research groups, UK synthetic biology is very much the remit of academic research.

The only business presentation at SEB Synthetic Biology came from an American DNA synthesis company, DNA2.0, an excellent example of a for-profit business thriving on an ethos of openness. As overviewed by Belinda Clarke (Technology Strategy Board) however, the UK is investing in technology transfer for synthetic biology and is working to improve understanding of this fledgling industry among the larger biotechnology sector.


Category: Cell Biology