It is the End of the World as We Know it, and I feel Strangely Ambivalent: Synthetic Biology 5.0

Synthetic Biology 5.0 has come and gone.  I expected, as in previous years, to be busy liveblogging amid the excitement.  I tweeted some during the proceedings (here is Eric Ma's summary of #synbio5 tweets), but this is my first post about the meeting, and probably the last one.  I mostly just listened, took a few notes, and was delighted to see the progress being made.  I was not nearly as amped up about the proceedings as in previous years, and I am still trying to figure out why. 

Here are a couple of reasons I have sorted out so far.  It was the end of the beginning of synthetic biology.  The meeting was full of science and engineering.  And that's about all.  There were a few VC's and other investors sniffing around, but not nearly so many as in previous years; those who did show up kept a lower profile.  There were also fewer obvious government officials, no obvious spooks, no obvious law enforcement officers, nor any self-identified Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinators.  And I only encountered a couple of reporters, though there must have been more.  I skipped 3.0 in Zurich, but at 1.0 at MIT, 2.0 at Berkeley (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and 4.0 in Hong Kong (part 1), there was much more buzz.  Synthetic Biology 5.0 was much shorter on hype than prior gatherings. 

There was substantially more data this year than previously.  And there was substantially less modeling.  All in all, Synthetic Biology is substantially more ... substantial.  It was like a normal scientific meeting.  About science.  No stunts from "civil society" groups looking for their next fear bullet point for fundraising.  No government officials proclaiming SB as the economic future of their city/state/country.  Just science.

What a relief.

And that science was nothing to sneeze at.  There were great talks for 3 days.  Here are a couple of things that caught my eye.

Jef Boeke from Johns Hopkins presented his plans to build synthetic yeast chromosomes.  I first heard this idea more than ten years ago from Ron Davis at Stanford, so it isn't brand new.  I did notice, however, that Boeke having all his synthetic chromosomes made in China.  Over the longer term this means China is getting a boost in building out future biomanufacturing platforms.  If the project works, that is.

As tweeted, Jack Newman from Amyris gave an update on commercialization of artemisinin; it should be on the market by the end of the year, which should be in time to help avert an expected shortfall in production from wormwood.  Fantastic.

Pam Silver and her various students and post-docs showed off a variety of interesting results.  First, Faisal Aldaye showed in vivo DNA scaffolds used to channel metabolic reactions, resulting in substantial increases in yield.  Second, Pam Silver showed the use of those scaffolds to generate twice as much sucrose from hacked cyanobacteria per unit of biomass as from sugar cane.  If that result holds up, and if the various issues related to the cost of bioreactors used to culture photosynthetic organisms are worked out, then Pam's lab has just made an enormous step forward in bringing about distributed biological manufacturing.

This is the sort of advance that makes me feel more sanguine about the future of MIcrobrewing the Bioeconomy.  It will take some years before the volume of Amyris' Biofene, or Gevo's bio-PET, or Blue Marble's bio-butyric acid begins to impact the oil industry.  But it is clear to me now as never before that the petroleum industry is vulnerable from the top of the barrel -- the high value, low volume compounds that are used to build the world around us in the form of petrochemicals.  Biology can now be used to make all those compounds, too, directly from sugar, cellulose, and sunlight, without the tens of billions of dollars in capital required to run an oil company (see The New Biofactories). 

So SB 5.0 was the end of the world as we know it.  Synthetic biology is now just another field of human endeavor, thankfully producing results and also thankfully suffering reduced hype.  I can see how the pieces are starting to fit together to provide for sustainable manufacturing and energy production, though it will be some years before biological technologies are used this way at scale.  Perhaps this is less in-your-face exciting for the attendees, the press, and the public, and that may be part of the reason for my ambivalence.  I fell asleep several times during the proceedings, which has never happened to me at SB X.0, even when overseas and jetlagged.  I have never before thought of achieving boredom as constituting progress.