Ireland has great potential for synthetic biology – Prof Matthew Bennett, Rice University

6 Mar 2014

Matthew Bennett, assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University in Houston, Texas

In our run-up to The Synthetic Biology Future event in Cork City on 13 March, we spoke to Matthew Bennett, assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, who will be one of the event’s keynote speakers.

Bennett is one of the leading authorities on synthetic biology in the United States and now spends his time encouraging the next generation of synthetic biologists to go and make the impossible possible.

In particular, Bennett has a major interest in the dynamics of gene regulation from small-scale interactions, such as transcription and translation, to the large-scale dynamics of gene regulatory networks.

What made you decide to become a synthetic biologist?

I was actually trained as a physicist with almost no background in biology. However, as I was finishing my doctorate I was seduced by the sheer number of unsolved fundamental problems in biology, especially relating to gene regulation. These problems take the Human Genome Project to another level and ask the question, “How do genes interact with one another to create viable organisms?”

I decided to take the skills I obtained from physics and apply them to answering that question. So, I began engineering the genomes of microbes – to understand biology better and to explore the possibilities of rationally designed organisms.

What does your daily work involve?

I am a professor and run an academic lab at Rice University in the US. This means my daily routine is usually a combination of writing research papers and grant proposals, mentoring graduate students, managing post-doctorates and teaching classes. I don’t get to do as much hands-on research as I would like, but I love guiding the research of my lab members.

What are some of the real-world applications of the synthetic biology that you do?

A significant portion of the research in my lab is pure, basic science. This means we explore the possibilities of synthetic biology without worrying about marketing our research to industry. The portion of our work that does have a real-world application falls under the guise of what I call ‘parts development’. We develop new genetic components that can be used to construct large-scale systems for industrial applications. The analogy I often use is that I create new engine parts but not the whole car.

What technology do you use in your lab and how much has it developed in the past 10 years?

My lab uses a number of essential technologies, including microfluidic devices, single-cell time-lapse fluorescence microscopy and DNA synthesis and sequencing. The most important technology, however, is molecular cloning, which is what we use to manipulate DNA.

In other words, molecular cloning allows us to edit, rearrange, and rewrite the DNA sequence in an organism. A decade ago, DNA manipulation was difficult, time-consuming, and almost an art rather than a science.

In the past few years, however, new methods for manipulating DNA have been developed. These have completely revolutionised our research by speeding up the process of DNA editing. It used to take years to create even small genetic circuits, now we can do so in just a few weeks.

At what stage of development do you see synthetic biology at the moment?

I think synthetic biology is in some ways adolescent, and in other ways embryonic. As a science, I think synthetic biology is in its adolescence. Synthetic biologists used to struggle to be taken seriously within the scientific community. Thanks to the work of the pioneers, this has gotten much better, though we still have a way to go.

Now, as a marketable technology, I think synthetic biology is still embryonic. Yes, there are a growing number of synthetic biology start-up companies across the globe. Most of these firms aim to use biology to produce something like biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or perfumes. These products are great, but they are in some sense the low-lying fruit of synthetic biology. The real game-changers will be applications we haven’t thought of yet.

Would you agree that its basis will remain in small-scale applications as opposed to much larger mass-produced applications?

I would not agree that synthetic biology will remain small-scale, even though there have been some highly publicised problems with scale-up. With every new technology, there always seems to be a scale-up issue. But, if the end goals are worth it, we will persevere and solve those issues. Do we want to mass produce biofuel? If so, then we will find a way, I am 100pc confident of that. Also remember that companies have only very recently tried to mass produce products using synthetically engineered organisms. I don’t think any of us were terribly surprised it didn’t work perfectly the first time. What does?

What are the biggest challenges facing your research and development today?

Pragmatically, funding is the eternal challenge of any academic research lab. It takes a lot of money to research and develop new technologies in synthetic biology. I am always on the lookout for new ways to connect with funding agencies or make contacts within industry. I think a more fundamental challenge is our apparent inability to dream up novel real-world applications – especially ones that do not involve producing a high-valued chemical.

Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of ideas about how synthetic biology might be used, but those ideas are generally in the far future and aren’t practical yet. I think this problem will be solved by the youngest generation of synthetic biologists now being trained. My generation is working so hard just to make synthetic biology possible that I think it will be the next generation that comes up with the ideas that will amaze people.

How developed is synthetic biology in the United States and what potential do you see Ireland as having?

Synthetic biology is probably more developed in the US than in any other country. With some notable exceptions, the best academic research labs studying synthetic biology are in the US. Because of that, synthetic biology start-up companies tend to be in the US, generally near those universities from which they sprang.

However, one of the nice things about synthetic biology is that, compared to many other technologies, the infrastructure needed for R&D is minimal. There are even DIY synthetic biology kits now. The real obstacle for growth in synthetic biology is the know-how. This is where Ireland has great potential. Ireland has a well-educated workforce and world-class university system. If Ireland began training people in synthetic biology, for instance by establishing university-level programmes, then they will be poised to play a major role.

The Synthetic Biology Future event takes place on Thursday, 13 March, in Cork County Hall, Cork City

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic