Synthetic Biology 4.0 – Not so live blog, part 1

What a difference a few years makes.  SB 1.0 was mostly a bunch of professors and grad students in a relatively small, stuffy lecture hall at MIT.  SB 2.0 in Berkeley expanded a bit to include a few lawyers, sociologists, and venture capitalists.  (I skipped 3.0 in Zurich.)

At just over 600 attendees, SB 4.0 is more than twice as big as even 3.0, with just under half the roster from Asia.  The venue, at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is absurdly nice, with a view over the ocean that beats even UCSB and UCSD.  Kudos also to the organizers here.  They worked very hard to make sure the meeting came off well, and it is clear they are interested in synthetic biology, and biotech in general, as a long term proposition.  The Finance Minister of Hong Kong, John Tsang, spoke one evening, and he was very clear that HK is planning to put quite a lot of money and effort into biology.

Which brings me to a general observation that Hong Kong really cares about the future, and is investing to bring it along that much sooner.  I arrived a day early in order to acclimate a bit and wander around the city, as my previous visit was somewhat hectic.  Even amid the financial crisis, the city feels more optimistic and energetic than most American cities I visit.

I will have to write up the rest of the meeting when I get back to the States later this week.  But here are a few thoughts:

As of the last few days, I have now seen all the pieces necessary to build a desktop gene printer.  I don’t have prediction when such a thing will arrive on the market, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is technically feasible.  With appropriate resources, I think it would take about 8 weeks to build a prototype.  It is that close.

Ralph Baric continues to do work on SARS that completely scares the shit out of me.  And I am really glad it is getting done, and also that he is the one doing it.  His work clearly demonstrates how real the threat from natural pathogens is, and how poorly prepared we are to deal with it.

Jian Xu, who is better known for his efforts to understand the human gut microbiome, spoke on the soup-to-nuts plant engineering and biofuels effort at the Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology, run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (QIBEBT).   The Chinese are serious about putting GM plants into the field and deriving massive amounts of energy from biomass.

Daphne Prauss from Chromatin gave a great talk about artificial chromosomes in plants and how they speed up genetic modification.  I’ll have to understand this a bit better before I write about it.

Zach Serber from Amyris spoke about on their biofuels efforts, and Amyris is on schedule to get aviation fuel, diesel, and biogasoline into the market within the next couple of years.  All three fuels have equivalent or better characteristic as petro-fuels when it comes to vapor pressure, cloud point, cetane number, octane, energy density, etc.

More soon.