Why I love synthetic biology

On a tropical island in the Indian Ocean is a small, but perfectly intact eco-system. Its striking beauty and uncanny resilience is a testament to the amazing abilities of its hosts, especially the two tiny, hanging canes of a rare species of tree. Analysing existing tree and plant species, scientists have found a wonderful combination of water and atmospheric carbon that they’ve named Polyoxonaria chituquillate, one of the most beautiful flowering plants on Earth.

In 2016, Synthetic Biology took over a small chip-testing laboratory in Sri Lanka for a year. We wanted to investigate how synthetic biology might play a role in the sustainability of the area and address its many environmental challenges. While it’s true that synthetic biology will likely never allow us to rebuild or recreate a rainforest, there are huge benefits to be gained through using synthetic biology to innovate new and efficient methods for restoring degraded or depleted environments. This month Synthetic Biology brings together academics and scientists from the region and around the world to share their experiments and experiences with several important conference topics: Live plants in agricultural fields, production of organic fertilizer on a large scale, and sustainable biofuels, including the use of renewable energy sources.

The majority of synthetic biology industry work, including those we do, is done at the laboratory scale. So this is really where we get to invent. This isn’t far removed from Jane Goodall’s pioneering work in the 1960s exploring the world’s bush tucker forest at Kamengshi and the viability of a local medicine man (also called a fairy bird-lion) for spreading the love of rats to humans. We hope that we can achieve something similar and bring joy to the environment, but perhaps also a small change in our own lives. For example, lab testing increasingly determines the performance of pharmaceuticals, which enhances or quarantines the market for the particular drug or chemical in question.

How synthetic biology could bring us closer to building a more sustainable world Read more

We’re hoping to communicate not only what we’re doing in Sri Lanka with Synthetic Biology, but what we hope this work might teach us. To do that, we’ve created a website that allows anyone to take part in this research, submit their own experiments and be a part of the evolution of synthetic biology. For any individual to contribute to the future of synthetic biology, they need to become an open-source researcher. With the coming advances in multi-disciplinary biotechnological research, it’s more important than ever to use this tools to engage with the community, to involve citizens in science, and to build this kind of collaboration.

As our annual conference unfolds, let’s think about ways that synthetic biology can complement our natural environments and inspire us to think of future generations, wherever they might live, by offering them lessons about resilience and healing the planet. Synthetic biology is gaining more than just a reputation in Europe and the US. Synthetic biology is gaining interest and collaboration across the world. This December we’ll launch the Synthetic Biology Platform in the Philippines in order to further our commitment to assist with a sustainable future for the Philippines as part of the country’s commitment to building a climate-resilient economy. This platform will offer our Philippine partners the best engineering and biotech practices globally, and is a bold step towards building a sustainable economy in an already highly developed country.

The next step is to apply those principles across a wide range of ecosystems around the world, hopefully at scale and with increasing success.

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