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Synthetic biology, in its broadest sense, is opening up a suite of possibilities for the design and redesign of biology to create new products and processes - advances in research and new toolkits could see the application of synthetic biology across a variety of industry sectors from pharmaceuticals to energy.

The UK is well positioned to play a leading role in the development of synthetic biology. It has world-leading research capabilities, supported by investment from the research councils in the creation of new research and innovation centres, and a small but growing SME community establishing connections with US leaders. At the same time, multinational corporations are becoming increasingly involved in the field, funding research within their own companies and in collaboration with academia and SMEs. However, challenges to the wider uptake of synthetic biology by industry remain. These include the clear need to demonstrate profitability in order to displace existing processes, concerns over public perception and difficulties around the language and definitions used in the field. Critically, these barriers risk meaning that the full potential of synthetic biology is not well understood by industry.

This conference will provide an honest and open appraisal of how industry is using synthetic biology, acknowledging successes and strengths but also looking at where there are weaknesses or potential risks. Speakers will include senior scientists from big industry and academia who will describe what challenges they believe synthetic biology can solve and what unmet needs it can address.

Attending this event

This event is intended for representatives from industry, academia and government who have an interest in synthetic biology. A programme will be published soon.

Please click here to register or contact the Industry team for more information.

About the conference series

The conference is part of the Society's Transforming our future conference series, launched to address the major scientific and technical challenges of the next decade and beyond. Each conference will focus on one topic and will seek to cover key issues, including:

  • The current state of the key industry sectors involved
  • The position of the UK and how it can benefit from the technology
  • The future direction of research
  • The challenges faced in turning research into commercial success
  • The skills base needed to deliver major scientific advances
  • The wider social and economic impacts

The conferences are a key component of the Society’s five-year Science, Industry and Translation initiative which demonstrates our commitment to reintegrate science and industry at the Society and to promote science and its value by connecting academia, industry and government.



Welcome remarks
New bio-based supply chains for medicines


Plants are a rich source of unique molecules, including 25% of natural-product-derived drugs. However, the discovery, synthesis, and overall material supply chains for sourcing plant-based medicines remain ad hoc, biased, and tedious. While microbial biosynthesis presents compelling alternatives to traditional approaches based on extraction from natural plant hosts, many challenges exist in the reconstruction of plant specialized metabolic pathways in microbial hosts. We have developed approaches to address the challenges that arise in the reconstruction of complex plant biosynthetic pathways in microbial hosts. We have utilized these strategies to develop yeast production platforms for an important class of plant alkaloids, which include the medicinal opioids. The intersection of synthetic biology, genomics, and informatics will lead to transformative advances in how we make and discover essential medicines.


The emerging synthetic biology industrial ecosystem


In the past several years an ecosystem of new companies has emerged in synthetic biology alongside substantial venture capital funding entering the sector.  These companies are reducing the cost and shortening the timeline to deliver genetically engineered organisms.  The falling cost of genetic engineering is opening new markets to biotechnology.


Panel discussion


Dr Christina Smolke, Stanford University

Dr Jason Kelly, Ginkgo BioWorks

Sir Geoffrey Owen, London School of Economics

Haydn Parry, Oxitec

Dr Morten Sogaard, Pfizer

Programming biology


The ability to program biology could enable fundamental breakthroughs in the detection and treatment of disease with high precision, the production of clean energy in a sustainable way, and the biofabrication of new medicines, fuels, and materials. In spite of this potential, there are still many challenges to overcome. First and foremost, programming biology is complex and error-prone, and we are at a point where powerful computer software could significantly accelerate further progress. This talk presents ongoing work to develop methods and software for programming biological systems. We present methods for programming molecular circuits made of DNA, and for characterising genetic parts that can be combined into devices for programming cell function. Just as software for programming digital computers transformed the technology landscape, software for programming biological systems could enable entirely new industries in biotechnology.


The energy challenge and synthetic biology


This talk will describe the transition in the energy system towards lower carbon and renewable energy sources. We will look at some of the fundamental scientific challenges around this transition and where synthetic biology can play a role.




Dr Andrew Phillips, Microsoft

Dr Jeremy Shears, Shell Projects & Technology

Dr Neil Parry, Unilever

Dr Dass Chahal, Croda

Professor Joyce Tait, The University of Edinburgh

Towards a rational design and directed evolution platform for biosynthetic small molecules


Building a designer organism that can make privileged and drug-like small molecules under genetic control is the first step to building a system that can evolve small molecules under the selective pressure of a biological assay. Advances in metabolic engineering, the structural biology of natural product biosynthesis, and in single cell assay platform technologies suggest the possibility of using synthetic biology to create designer hosts for the production, screening, and directed evolution of small molecules. Nonetheless, there remain formidable conceptual and technical barriers to the realization of such an approach. The talk aims to identify specific challenges and gaps in our current understanding and experimental abilities, as a means of advancing further discussion and interest in the feasibility of exploring such a system.


Reprogramming the genetic code


The information for synthesizing the molecules that allow organisms to survive and replicate is encoded in genomic DNA. In the cell, DNA is copied to messenger RNA, and triplet codons (64) in the messenger RNA are decoded - in the process of translation - to synthesize polymers of the natural 20 amino acids. This process (DNA RNA protein) describes the central dogma of molecular biology and is conserved in terrestrial life. We are interested in rewriting the central dogma to create organisms that synthesize proteins containing unnatural amino acids and polymers composed of monomer building blocks beyond the 20 natural amino acids. I will discuss our invention and synthetic evolution of new 'orthogonal' translational components (including ribosomes and aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases) to address the major challenges in re-writing the central dogma of biology. I will discuss the application of the approaches we have developed for incorporating unnatural amino acids into proteins and investigating and synthetically controlling diverse biological processes, with a particular emphasis on understanding the role of post-translational modifications.


Panel discussion


Professor Paul Freemont

Professor Jason Chin

Dr David Tew, Technical Project Lead, Biological Technologies, GSK

Dr Nigel Darby, GE Healthcare, Life Science

Dr Virginia Acha, ABPI

Closing remarks