Synthetic Biology Future event coming to Cork

5 Mar 2014

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On 13 March, Cork will welcome some of the world’s leading experts in one of the most exciting sciences of the 21st century, synthetic biology, with the launch of the Synthetic Biology Future conference.

As a branch of science, synthetic biology is being widely claimed as this century’s equivalent to harnessing the power of silicon in microchips with the potential to affect nearly every aspect of our lives from food and medicine production, to the energy we use and consumer goods we buy.

Essentially, synthetic biology is the process whereby the natural, genetic material of an organism is used, manipulated and replicated to either create genetic code for the basis of producing a natural substance on a larger scale or using that manipulated code to produce an entirely new product that could do anything from save a human life to self-healing paint for a house.

According to figures released by Transparency Market Research, as of 2012, the worldwide synthetic biology market was worth US$2.1bn. However, it is expected that by 2018, this number will rise eight-fold to US$16.7bn and, most importantly, Europe is to lead the way in the field.

Despite this, while Ireland is considered one of the leading bio-technology hubs in the world, there remains little, if any, investment or developments in this country with regard to synthetic biology.

Now, with the help of Bill Liao and SOSVentures, the Synthetic Biology Future conference will bring in some of the most exciting minds in this field of biology with the hope of making Ireland, and Cork in particular, the ‘carbon valley’ of synthetic biology in the same way that Silicon Valley was the birthplace of the microchip industry.

A garage-like industry

“Synthetic biology, at this moment, I think, is at the same point in time as silicon was back in the 1980s,” says Bill Liao, venture partner at SOSVentures that invest in some of the most exciting fields of technology start-ups.

And, just like it was in the 1980s with silicon, some of the most innovative computer technologies to come from the material came not from major corporate industries, but from the smaller labs and even garages that was seen with the examples of Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple.

Describing the potential applications of this field worthy of being a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of new ideas, Liao says the idea to host a synthetic biology event in Cork was a no-brainer: “This conference came about was after I looked around and we found 14 of the top 15 pharma companies on the planet are in Cork. Cork has this unusual opportunity to become a centre of synthetic biology because all those pharma companies are re-tooling to use synthetic biology as their core manufacturing process.”

Along with trying to encourage start-up synthetic biology groups to establish in Ireland, the event will host a number of expert keynote speakers from Ireland and abroad to discuss both the scientific potential of synthetic biology as well as how it can be made into a viable financial model.

The eventual goal is to attract start-ups to this summer’s SynBio Axlr8r which will fund and mentor selected synthetic biology start-ups in University Colleg Cork.

Due to speak at the event are names like Professor Matthew Bennet of Rice University, DCU lecturer Deirdre Madden, ‘biohacker’ Cathal Garvey and Thomas Landrain, co-founder of La Paillasse, one of the world’s largest non-profit community laboratories.

 Liao himself says that a lot of work went into finding the best people available to speak in Cork on 13 March: “It’s a very new field and all of them subject matter experts. We went out and really researched who are the people to be able to give the most interesting views on this. I’m particularly interested in the light industrial applications and also in the tools and there’s a whole panel on what tools are out there.”

Science with a conscience

As one of the keynote speakers, Cathal Garvey has spent the last number of years putting his own time and money developing open source products for start-up synthetic biology labs with the help of technology like 3D printing to develop the lab equipment needed to run a small-scale facility and has also been writing software and guides to make synthetic biology easier for those looking to move into molecular biology: “We should be able to develop our own labs to follow ideas that interest us and in the same way that someone can self-teach themselves programming with an off the shelf computer or laptop, so why shouldn’t it be the same in molecular biology,” says Garvey.

“I set up my own lab with my own money and started ordering DNA over the internet…with the ability to synthesis DNA on demand.”

One example that he gives in relation to how the technology can save millions of lives is in relation to the treatment of malaria with a drug known as artemisinin.

Because it is extracted from the wormwood plant, its production has lied entirely with the farmers who were able to grow this crop making it prohibitively expensive for mass production.

However, now with the help of synthetic biology, a team has extracted a strain from the yeast which, with the right facilities, could produce enough cheap artemisinin for the entire world.

“From one humanitarian aspect it’s huge in how we can start treating people at a much lower cost and no one has to go without,” says Garvey.

“There’s social justice things in play here because their attitude to the world is that it puts wormwood farmers out of business but they can always take up something else whereas my attitude would be to publically fund this research and then give the enhanced means of production to the people that are already trying to supply global demand.”

That is why he now sees the time for Ireland to make use of what we have here and develop a sector which has been so far very limited if non-existent: “We [Garvey and Liao] both feel that’s a shame because from a regulations point of view in Europe, Ireland is one of the best places to do synthetic biology but it’s not designed to crush the industry like there is in Germany.

“Ireland has a very strong cluster of biotechnology companies with research labs and non-profits but nobody’s pushing for it. We’re hoping this will turn Cork into the ‘Carbon Valley’.”

The Synthetic Biology Future event is taking place on Thursday, 13 March in Cork County Hall, Cork City and for more information on how to attend and what’s in store, you can visit their website at http://synbioaxlr8r.com/future/

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Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com