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This synthetic bio conference is all natural

by Kate Sheridan October 21, 2014

Concordia continues focus on discipline by hosting workshop

An upcoming workshop at the Loyola campus will bring together scientists, policy makers, and industry leaders later this month to discuss synthetic biology.

The UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop will be taking place on Oct. 27 and 28, with the first day comparing the synthetic biology landscapes in the United Kingdom, Quebec, and Canada. The second day will discuss why industry and public institutions should invest in synthetic biology.

Speakers will include executives from Genome Quebec and Genome Canada as well as professors from the Université de Montréal, Concordia, McGill, and the University of Toronto.

The workshop’s goals are to inform people—especially policy makers—about how synthetic biology can change our world and foster international partnerships, according to the workshop’s website.

Canadian biologists should find plenty of opportunities for transatlantic collaborations with their British counterparts.

“The UK has a huge, multi-million dollar program to fund synthetic biology,” said Dr. Vincent Martin, the co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

Concordia has also been investing in synthetic biology. The centre was Canada’s first dedicated synthetic biology research site.

“The university itself, all the way up to the president’s office, has made it a priority,” Martin said. “They’ve realized that this is a place where Concordia can make an impact and are dedicating resources to it.”

Synthetic biology makes biology work for us by altering an organism’s genetic code—Martin likes to use the term “industrializing biology.”

“If you look at what synthetic biology is about, it’s the next logical step in the research and development of biology,” Martin said.

One group of Concordia students wants to use algae to make protein shakes and fuels. Other groups are working to synthetically produce an anti-Malaria drug. Another group from Taipei has made an E. coli bacteria to prevent colony collapse disorder, an issue that has decimated bee colonies around the world.

In each case, an organism is being changed at a genetic level to turn it into an extraordinary natural factory, something that scientists couldn’t do without the cheap and easy genome sequencing techniques developed in the last few decades.

“We’re sequencing genomes like we’re making toast now,” Martin said.

Bringing these innovations to the public will require cooperation between academia and industry. Biotech companies don’t have the resources to tinker with dozens of potential projects that may fail, and academics cannot bring their projects to a large scale.

“There’s always going to be tinkering,” Martin said, “but especially in an industrial process, it doesn’t need to be your focus.”

In addition to international and industrial collaborations, the ethical and legal aspects surrounding synthetic biology will also be discussed at the workshop.

Unintentional exposure to synthetic bacteria or toxins could pose new dangers to scientists, according to a 2009 review paper published in the Journal of Systems and Synthetic Biology. People could use synthetic biology to create new bioweapons. As in any scientific field, amateur scientists could hurt themselves or others if they are not taught proper safety protocols.

Some groups are also concerned about ethical and moral issues as scientists create new forms of life.

“There has to be a dialogue between academics, industry, and users,” Martin said. “You can develop the best technology on this planet, but if you end up creating something that nobody wants or everybody is afraid of, you haven’t gained anything.”

The workshop is not geared for the general public, but the discussions are important and could affect everyone. Martin thinks synthetic biology discoveries could be felt throughout society, particularly in health care fields and the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s a bit of a lens into the future,” Martin said. “Years from now, lives are going to change because of this.”

In 2010, Concordia held a workshop to help people understand synthetic biology research. “It was mostly meant to be an educational process,” Martin said. Representatives from universities and Canada’s funding agencies were invited. According to Martin, few attended.

This time is different. Representatives from universities, companies, and funding agencies have agreed to participate and moderate several panels.

“I think that’s a sign that our hard work for getting this thing recognized is slowly paying off,” Martin said.

The stakeholders should “drive the process,” Martin said, due to their active involvement in the planning and execution of the workshop.

More information about the workshop is available online uk-canadasyntheticbiology.yolasite.com.

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