A review of the recent Synthetic Biology UK 2017 Conference hosted in Manchester on the 27th and 28th of November. It was my first conference as a Ph.D. student and it was, by all accounts, an interesting and enjoyable affair.
The conference brought together a great assortment of researchers, industry figures and other interested actors, leading to a remarkably varied conference. The different backgrounds and purposes of individuals did not, however, detract from the generally collegiate and friendly feel.
Throughout the conference, I tried to deduce some key themes or recurring topics. From the list of talks and posters, you get the word cloud shown below, with “engineering”, “metabolic” and “microbial” featuring strongly. Indeed, there was a prevalence of approaches which could be termed metabolic engineering 2.0. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that the conference was just yards from SynBioChem, with its focus on microbial production of small and speciality chemicals, but also may relate to the fact that it is metabolic engineering of microbes which is looking most promising for generating applications in the short-term.
Noticeable also was the emphasis on automation, software and foundries with a plethora of open-source techniques and tools intended to facilitate the work of others in the field. Whether it was Huimen Zhao’s genome-scale engineering approaches or Manchester’s own Pablo Carbonell presenting retropath 2.0 to aid pathway prioritisation, this was altruistic science at its best.
An interesting feature of the conference was a distinct lack of “promises”. The synthetic biology field in the past has faced criticism for making unrealistic promises in terms of its ability to solve grand challenges facing society. At this conference at least, this previous exaggerated rhetoric had been replaced with a feeling of a field reaching maturity, big claims lacking in evidence were replaced by determined steady progress. And this did not mean there weren’t applications, the whole final section was dedicated to talks on applications, and exciting they were with examples from bacterial cellulose, to the control of dengue fever carrying mosquitos. Perhaps, at last, after much hype, synthetic biology is finally reaching the “plateau of productivity” within the hype cycle.
In terms of responsible research and innovation (RRI) issues in synthetic biology, there were two dedicated oral correspondences and two posters. Starting off with a very enlightening talk from Andy Balmer on public perceptions of menthol provided a great framing for the rest of the conference. However, there remained a distinct lack of references to RRI or other related concepts in wider posters or talks. This isn’t to say these researchers were not aware or actively engaged in RRI, I know from my conversations at the conference that many are very receptive to RRI issues. However, it does give a sense of the perhaps still persistent “tagged-on” nature of RRI.
I finished the conference talking about responsible research with three other conference attendees. One individual from industry, one early-career researcher and one technician. All had interesting perspectives and varying levels of scepticism. However, we were soon engaged in a vibrant discussion of what RRI meant in relation to synthetic biology, ranging from techno-economic feasibility to global justice implications. The very fact that the conversation occurred, and the mutual respect shown for differing points of view, assured me that RRI is indeed alive and well in the UK synthetic biology community.