I joined several other Centre members on a trip to the Far East this month to attend SB7.0, the world’s foremost professional meeting in the field of synthetic biology. This year, the event was hosted by the National University of Singapore, a rather more exotic destination to that of SB6.0 held in London in 2013.
The meeting attracted over 600 delegates during the 4-day conference, which hosted over 100 speakers. There were many exciting new sessions: there was one completely dedicated to biodiversity and conservation and it was exciting to find out how synthetic biology could meet the necessities of both fields. For example, producing palm oil synthetically could help mitigate the environmental damage caused by palm tree plantations in Southeast Asia. Likewise, the urgent need to get coral reefs to adapt to climate change could be addressed by manipulating corals genetically to enhance their stress tolerance. Wildlife conservation could be enabled through development of synthetic biology-based projects focused on addressing threats to endangered species by genetically rescuing them.
In the health-related sessions, we heard about strategies to engineer microbes for biomedical applications such as fighting cancers or human infectious pathogens. We also learnt about further developments of tools such as optogenetic transcription devices that enhance blood-glucose homeostasis, and synthetic receptors that can recognise multiple antigen signals and integrate signals to enhance T-cell-based cancer therapy.
A very interesting element of the meeting was the ‘Art and Critique’ session where some very provocative comments were made by the speakers. Several pointed out that synthetic biology has been promoted as a revolutionary new field destined to bring huge and significant changes in health care and society but those promises haven’t been fulfilled as yet. This is something we should all reflect on.
Another major theme of the meeting was the importance of biosecurity. A lot of emphasis was placed on the responsibility that we have, as researchers, to think about potential consequences of the new tools that we are developing. We need to anticipate to what extend the population could be negatively affected if they were incorrectly used and to prevent this happening by developing safeguards before those tools are available to society. We need an open and transparent discussion with the general public to make sure that they understand and support synthetic biology: this engagement will only be achieved if we learn by sharing.
The organisers wrapped up SB7.0 with a gala dinner in the amazing Flower Dome, part of Gardens by the Bay (see photos). We enjoyed some delicious Asian food while enjoying the performance of traditional dances from different Asian countries!
So, where will SB8.0 take us next?
By Alazne Dominguez
Alazne is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof Jamie Davies, UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology
Great setting for the Gala dinner