Systems-Level Insights into the Synthetic Biology Congress
Posted 30th January 2017 by Jane Williams
The Molecular Biology Summit hosted three meetings in parallel: the qPCR and Digital PCR Congress, the Microfluidics Congress, and the Synthetic Biology Congress. Each meeting had talks organised into tracks which took place side-by-side. I attended the Synthetic Biology Congress, which also gave me access to the other two meetings. Day 1 offered healthcare, running in parallel with plant synthetic biology. Day 2 offered synthetic microbiology running in parallel with technology and tool development. Since I am leading the effort to expand the scope of cell systems into synthetic biology and bioengineering, this meeting, with its impressive list of speakers, looked to be fertile ground for me to make contacts and keep abreast of trends in the community.
After the early days of proof-of-principle studies, the challenge of developing applications is now a major focus for research in synthetic biology. This meeting showcased this trajectory towards applications and eventual product development. The healthcare and plant synthetic biology tracks reflect the seemingly divergent end-uses of therapeutics/diagnostics and agricultural biotechnology. Both are human-centred but rarely communicate, so it was great to alternate tracks and get a taste of each. The synthetic microbiology track reflected the roots of the discipline, and spoke to industrial biotechnology and the burgeoning biofuels community. Red, green, and white biotechnology were all well represented.
Standout talks covered new developments in harnessing epigenetic control of genes for cancer therapy, engineering nitrogen fixation in plants, RNA-based synthetic biology, synthetic microbial communities for consortia-based production, cell-free synthetic systems, control of the biophysical properties of cells, and modelling tools to optimise metabolic engineering.
Ross Kettleborough, from TWIST Biosciences, presented the best argument for DNA based storage I’ve heard yet. For those not in the know, TWIST provides massively parallel synthesis of oligos for a host of applications, including gene synthesis, oligo pools for CRISPR workflows, site saturation libraries, and data storage in DNA. Ross reasoned that obsolescence of read technology is unlikely because humans will always want to sequence their DNA.
For attendees who have an immediate use for the product or service presented, the solution provider presentations were invaluable. This is not the first time I have seen a talk by a vendor or vendor-sponsored talk at a conference, but it was the first time I’ve seen it so directly integrated into the conference proceedings. The break/meal area and exhibition hall were one and the same, and breaks were timed to be concurrent for all the parallel meetings. I had a buffet style lunch with two attendees of the Microfluidics Congress.
Despite the academic nature of the topics, the proceedings did not feel like an academic meeting at all. The event was primed for efficiency, with parallel tracks, integrated vendor talks, and shared exhibition and break/meal space. This gave everything an overall air of being product driven and compact. The effect was that of a sampling of research topics and the opportunity to dive deep into a product or service that might be of interest to you. From the point of view of the researchers and the vendors, this style of conference represents a different kind of opportunity.
If a researcher can leverage their interaction with a provider, they could gain major insight not only one problem but many. Conversely if a provider can interact with researchers at a deeper level, it is possible to better understand their true needs. For me as a member of scientific publishing industry, this conference experience has allowed me to glimpse a different perspective and encouraged me to reflect on the research community I serve and what kind of solutions I can provide.
Ernesto Andrianantoandro is a Scientific Editor of Cell Systems: a monthly journal covering molecules, pathways, cells, tissues, whole organisms, populations and ecosystems.
The next synthetic biology meeting takes place 4 – 5 December in London. View the agenda.
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