Last week I had the incredible opportunity to attend the BioWorld Congress on Industrial Biotechnology
held in the Palais des congrès in Montréal, Québec from the 23rd to the 26th of July. While ranging from renewal chemicals to biofuels and food ingredients, this year’s congress had a dedicated synthetic biology track consisting of seven sessions over three days. Imagine my excitement when I was asked to moderate one of the sessions! The congress is now over, and I would like to summarise my impressions on this unique event for our community.
The congress in a nutshell
The BioWorld Congress has been held annually for 14 years. In this occasion, it brought together about 1000 attendees from 32 countries, 535 companies and 277 presenting speakers. The event is a great opportunity for networking with people from industry, academia and the government, with the possibility of setting up one-on-one meetings in a dedicated space. For instance, this facilitated my meetings with Ecovia Renewable, Intrexon and Arzeda.
The congress also accommodated both local and international exhibitors and a poster section in a dedicated area, which encouraged discussion and sharing of novel ideas, technologies and investment opportunities.
The Synthetic Biology Stream
The synthetic biology stream kicked off with talks on ‘Ultilising synthetic biology to address global challenges’, but this theme resonated throughout the whole conference. As Andy Bass of Intrexon also pointed out synbio seems to be THE technology that is most promising for addressing modern and compelling problems such as lowering our footprint using biomaterials, developing food supplies and managing the waste of an increased population (we are prospected to reach a population of more than 9 billion people by 2050), controlling infectious diseases or addressing anthropogenic climate change. Companies such as Phytonix or academics such as Prof. Peter Lindblad, for instance, are engineering photosynthetic cyanobacteria to produce chemicals (such as butanol) by utilising CO2 with the final goal of tending towards an increasingly circular economy. CO2 utilisation was also discussed thoroughly in the afternoon section on ‘Microbial and synthetic approaches to CO2 utilisation’ where speakers such as Ed de Jong (Avantium) discussed other possible methods for converting the gas into high-value products, for example through electrochemistry platforms that use CO2 as a feedstock. Synthetic biology can also be used for bioremediation through microbial engineering, and, as I also believe, goes hand in hand with biocatalysis: it was exciting to see Prof. Yadav sharing this vision when speaking about the state-of-the-art research he carries out in his BioFoundry, in British Columbia.
I was very impressed to see that the synthetic biology industry (such as the startup iMicrobes) is now also able to engineer methanotrophs to make chemicals out of hydrocarbons including methane, ethane, biogas and ethylene. It looks like the industry is starting to move away from E.coli and yeast as the only organisms to be considered for the efficient production of chemicals.
Synthetic biology is not only engineering of microbes, but also the development of better DNA synthesis technologies and enzyme engineering platforms. With the price of DNA synthesis continuing to drop, companies like Twist bioscience and ATUM (formerly DNA2.0) are now able to offer competitive DNA synthesis services which promise to eliminate the need of time-consuming cloning and libraries generation. Ingenza proposes a further alternative through its inABLE® proprietary combinatorial genetic platform, which makes the assembly of multicomponent genetic systems faster and more predictable.
The field of protein engineering is changing, too as new disruptive technologies are brought to the market: Arzeda is demonstrating how computational design can be successfully applied both to improve enzymes and to make metabolic bioengineering easier, while ATUM targets protein engineering through their machine learning and DoE (Design of Experiment) platform.
I was excited to see that the organisers decided to dedicate one plenary session of the congress to discuss the benefits brought by effective communication of the advancements in the biotech industry. During this session, Vonnie Estes was awarded the Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology for her outstanding and pioneering contribution to the field. Throughout her career, she covered key positions in biotechnological companies (big multinationals and smaller startups), as an advisor and in government boards.
During the panel section four speakers discussed about the need of clearly communicating biotechnological advancement to the lay public: Melody Bomgardner (Senior Business Editor at Chemical and Egineering News), Doris de Guzman (Green Chemical Blog), Stephan Errera (VP Strategy and Public Affairs Evolva) and Sylvie Latieule (Director of Info Chimie Magazine). One very interesting question arose: should all the population be targeted as our audience? Is this even possible, and how do we educate that part of the population that is a priori against biotechnological development, for instance against GMOs? A point was made that there will always be non-convincible people and that maybe we should not waste our energy targeting them. I am not sure that I completely agree: targeting the ‘impossible audience’ corresponds to making the greatest effort to be as convincing and as clear as possible, so maybe we should still engage in doing so. We probably will not be able to convince everyone, but we certainly should try to be as inclusive as possible. Any thoughts?
The BioWorld Congress has given all its participants the occasion to do some great networking, to listen to inspiring talks and to discuss the future of synthetic biology in the biotechnology industry. Synthetic biology is already being used to make industrial processes more sustainable, and to develop new disruptive technologies. It is now more than ever increasingly important for industry to make a collaborative effort towards the advancement of the field, which I felt was something that everybody agreed upon.
Note from the author: Special thanks to Paul Winters for inviting me to attend the conference and to Brent Erickson for organising such a successful and enjoyable event.
Pictures are courtesy of the BioWorld Congress on Industrial Biotechnology: https://www.bio.org/events/bio-world-congress