Live from Synthetic Biology 2.0, Part II

This year's meeting has an interesting new flavor, namely that of money.  There are VC's here (yesterday at lunch gave us the interesting sight of Vinod Khosla and Craig Venter sitting off together in a corner, no doubt planning the future of Synthetic Biology); the list of sponsors is heavy with corporate names.  This is all a great change from SB 1.0, which had a very academic feel.

Yesterday's "Synthesis Panel" was in fact a series of tag team marketing pitches from synthesis company executives, presumably in exchange for their sponsorship of the meeting.  The summary of that session, perhaps unintended, was that all four companies essentially gave quotations to the audience for synthesis jobs: "no more than four weeks, perfect synthesis, buck a base."  We also heard that they are expecting the cost curves to keep up the current pace, and that this time next year synthesis of genes will be $.50 a base.  We heard some discussion of changes in technology, but everybody is still essentially using the same chemistry, just different plumbing.  The presentation from Codon Devices included references to a bunch of interesting methods, including something I predicted/hoped would happen, namely the combination of the synthesis strategy published by Tian, et al., with the MutS purification scheme from Peter Carr at MIT.

The commercial (as opposed to governmental or foundation) money here is an indication that biological technologies are achieving recognition as a significant potential influence on the economy.  I still don't understand how to finesse the IP issues -- I've been working on a blog post and book chapter about "The State of Open Source Biology", or perhaps just "Open Biology", which just aren't ready for release yet.

Carolyn Bertozzi (UC Berkeley) is speaking now, which reveals another interesting thread to this meeting.  Prof. Bertozzi is presenting work on modifying extracellular sugar groups to better understand cell signaling and hopefully get at cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.  People are really waking up to the possibilities of combining powerful biochemistry with synthetic methods for building new pathways with exceptional power and flexibility.

Jack Szostak (Harvard) just stepped up to the microphone to speak about a "Model of Synthetic Protocell."  His protocell is a simple replicating vesicle with it's own nucleic acid instruction set, but he doesn't want to use any preexisting biochemical machinery.  "All processes must be spontaneous".  That's ambitious.  He says he doesn't think the work has any particular practical application, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.