By Guest Contributor, Rene Daer
The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) was founded in 2006 to bring together researchers working in the field of synthetic biology to help establish and grow the field. The goals for the ten-year center are to make biology easier to engineer, train the next group of synthetic biology researchers, integrate the industrial biotech community, and actively engage the public and policy makers. Synberc recently gathered at MIT for its Fall 2015 retreat. The retreats embody each of those goals through students sharing their progress in synthetic biology research and policy and through organization and participation in education, outreach, and public engagement activities.
The retreat kicked off with a community engagement event called “Conversations about Synthetic Biology”, first in a series of engagement events, held at LabCentral, a new lab space for biotech startups in Cambridge, MA. A mix of community members, researchers from different STEM fields, and synthetic biologists participated in hands-on activities from the Boston Museum of Science and discussed the current and potential impacts of synthetic biology in small groups. Researchers discussed how they participate in educating non-scientists on synthetic biology and how they think this effort has led to an increase in awareness in the broader community. A Boston high school teacher and one of her students shared how using BioBuilder, a kit that enables novice students to do simple synthetic biology experiments (see biobuilder.org for more), . Community members asked questions about the impacts and potential risks of synthetic biology and suggested ways that researchers can engage the public more effectively.
Saturday morning started strong with Dr. Ron Weiss’ presentation on synthetic organoids, organ-like tissues grown in vitro. From there we heard students and postdocs share the latest synthetic biology research from their Synberc labs, ranging from cell-free RNA systems to mammalian cells:
Microbial screening and engineering
In the microbial engineering realm, we heard from Harneet Rishi (UC Berkeley) and Andrea Balassy (Washington University in St. Louis).
Andrea presented her group’s progress in engineering cyanobacteria to fix nitrogen. Their work will lead to better understanding of nitrogen fixation and engineering plants.
Harneet presented MiCodes, a microscopy-based approach for visualizing genotypic information in yeast. The project began as an iGEM project in 2012 at UC Berkeley and was recently published in ACS Synthetic Biology. By using different combinations of fluorescent colors and localization tags, MiCodes allows one to screen a library of thousands of phenotypes using microscopy.
Biosensors were a highly anticipated topic of research. Students from all over the country presented molecular and cellular sensors for applications ranging from high-throughput screening of production-strains to infection-detection in humans.
We heard from Allison Hoynes-O’Connor at Washington University in St. Louis about her novel RNA, heat-repressible thermosensors. The sensors can be used to engineer logic at the transcriptional, translational, and post-translational levels. They’ve studied 24 of them in detail and have also developed guidelines for effectively designing more.
Later, Prabha Ramakrishnan, from Rice University, presented work on new light-responsive transcriptional controllers. Her group is using such tools to engineer cells that can sense and respond to multiple inputs.
Emily Yasi from the Peralta-Yahya lab at Georgia Tech presented her work on screening and evolving GPCR-based biosensors for biofuels and other chemicals. These biosensors will allow the Peralta-Yahya lab to scale screening of chemical-producing microbes to incredible levels, rapidly advancing their workflow of engineering microbes for industrial applications.
Dr. Shimyn Slomovic from the Collins Lab at MIT presented a zinc-finger based tool that detects specific DNA sequences and causes a user-designated cellular response. This tool was used to successfully detect adenovirus infection in mammalian cells and trigger expression of GFP through a clever intein-spliced activator. This could prove to be a great development for the field of synthetic biology.
To wrap up the first day and transition to the poster session, Synberc added a new session of 1-minute poster presentations. Unlike previous years, anyone presenting a poster could give a 1-minute pitch to all attendees. This proved a great success and showcased a whole range of synthetic biology projects and paved the way for people to find posters to their interest.
Outreach and education
We also heard about the fantastic outreach and education efforts by Synberc faculty, staff, and affiliates. Dr. Karmella Haynes from Arizona State University shared her experiences as an instructor at the Cold Spring Harbor Synthetic Biology Course. She has taught the course for the last three summers with several other young faculty. Students from all over the world come to the historical Cold Spring Harbor campus in Long Island, NY to get hands-on lab experience and mingle with course instructors and speakers, which include some of the top researchers in synthetic biology. Faculty instructors bring cutting edge experiments from their own labs to teach students about a wide-range of research areas including RNA circuits in cell-free systems, metabolic engineering in bacteria, high-throughput selection of yeast biosensors, CRISPR/Cas9 in mammalian cells, and more. If you are interested in being a student or instructor, check out cshlsynbio.wordpress.com to learn more!
David Sittenfeld shared his science museum outreach efforts in collaboration with Synberc. He’s looking to expand to two hundred sites across the country. If you are interested in bringing Building with Biology to your community, see here: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/2291182/303612fc932e
Shaila Kotadia, Synberc’s Education, Outreach, and Diversity Manager, discussed how to engage audiences of all ages by using creative movement to explain synthetic biology research. This activity allows the public to generate a choreographed dance based on a synthetic biology project, the example of which she used was a past Synberc project on tumor killing bacteria piloted at the California Academy of Sciences NightLife series. She showed a video of people’s reactions to dancing tumor killing bacteria. Want to watch?: http://dance.synberc.org/media.html
During the poster session, Swati Carr, Synberc’s new Diversity Fellow, promoted the upcoming Expanding Potential Workshop on January 30-31 at UC Berkeley. Attendees will discuss and learn how underrepresented groups experience bias and share and receive guidance on implementing action-oriented programs to combat bias in their groups and at their institutions. If you are interested in attending, visit here: http://www.synberc.org/expanding-potential-2016-workshop
Policy and practices
The weekend also included intriguing talks on policy and practices related to synthetic biology. Shlomiya Lightfoot from MIT discussed how we can evaluate environmental and societal consequences of synthetic biology. She challenged us to look to experts in other fields like policy, ethics, and industry; policy and industry can greatly benefit from knowing what research is in progress can lead to collaborations and novel applications.
Synbio LEAP director Megan Palmer invited several 2015 fellows to share their experiences and discuss their current projects. Kevin Esvelt pushed for transparency to reduce redundancy and make research efforts more efficient. Karen Ingram shared her ideas for shaping the context of synthetic biology from a design perspective and current outreach projects, including her work with The Empiricist League, an organization that promotes events at the intersection of artistic creativity and science.
As a whole, the talks at the Synberc retreats represent some of the best new work in the field of synthetic biology. There is a real sense of excitement and discovery at these meetings forecasting that many of the ideas will have a big impact on the future of engineering biology. Overall it was a great weekend full of exciting science presentations and discussion about policy and outreach.
Disclaimer: All views presented here are of the author and not necessarily of PLOS.
René Daer is a fifth-year graduate student in the Haynes’ Lab at Arizona State University. She studies ways to engineer synthetic chromatin in mammalian cells.