The Synthetic Biology Project run by the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center has produced a report on government funding for synthetic biology that shows the US powering ahead – with most of money arriving in just the past three years.

According to the report, Europe government funding for synthetic biology outpaced US for the first three years tracked – from 2005 to 2007 – but was then suddenly overtaken as US projects attracted a massive increase in money.

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The 2008 spikes follow a period when a number of projects attracted public attention. The J Craig Venter Institute demonstrated that it was possible to transplant a genome from one related species of bacteria cell to another; the team at UC Berkeley cut a deal to deliver the fruits of its artemisinin-synthesis project to Sanofi-Aventis in exchange for an agreement for the antimalarial to be manufactured and sold at near cost; and a crop of biofuel specialists popped up describing how they would transform bacteria and algae to make alternatives to diesel and petroleum.

Some of the spike may also be due to a recategorisation of projects. Synthetic biology has a blurred boundary so it’s not difficult to rework project proposals and grants to accommodate it rather than older definitions such as genetic modification.

For example, since 2006, the US Department of Energy alone has spent more than $700m on synthetic-biology research. The report points out: “Sources with the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) suggested the entire budgets of the Genomic Sciences Program and the Joint Genome Institute could be classified as synthetic-biology research.”

However, the report calculates that total US spending to date is lower, at $430m by assuming a more conservative level of funding from the DoE than the one proposed by the government agency: “We…cut its overall numbers in half.”

Medical and agriculture funding in the US lags biofuel work by a long way. The National Institute of Health has made $48m in awards since 2005 and the Department of Agriculture less than $3m. It was not clear how much the Department of Homeland Security and DARPA have spent. DARPA has only revealed a figure of $20m as a line item in its report for fiscal 2011.

Where funding for European funding falls is less clear as it is far more fragmented. But the project has said it wants to put together more detailed information as it continues to look at this area.

Pointing to the 2007 PLoS Biology paper on intellectual property rights in synthetic biology co-written with Arti Rai, James Boyle of the Duke Law School has written in the Financial Times (and reprinted at The Public Domain blog) of his fears of the entire sector being locked up by patent and copyright claims by the likes of J Craig Venter.

One of the problems facing synthetic biology is that no-one is really quite sure which IP laws will affect it the most. It has the characteristics of software in some respects - although I believe some of these comparisons are overplayed and run the risk of misleading people as to how synthetic organisms will be designed - and patentable hardware in others.

US IP law may not even have the right infrastructure to deal with synthetic biology. Rick Johnson, who heads up an OECD group on synthetic biology, and who has called the field “an IP law professor’s dream final examination problem”, has argued that lawyers in this field should take a closer look at design rights, which are used in Europe and Asia but hardly at all in the US, as a means of protecting synthetic-biology inventions without the encumbrance that often goes with patents in biotechnology.

Boyle warns:

“Some of the patents being filed are astoundingly basic, the equivalent of patenting Boolean algebra right at the birth of computer science. With courts now reconsidering both business method and perhaps software patents, and patents over human genes, the future is an uncertain one.”

iGem competitor launches

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The Yokohama-based Bioinformatics and Systems Engineering (BASE) division of Japan’s RIKEN research institute has launched its own take on the iGEM genetic-engineering competition, Nature reports.

In contrast to iGEM, which has no restrictions on entries other than they should use synthetic biology techniques and deliver any newly created genes to the BioBrick Registry, the GenoCon competition has a definite objective. For the one that has just launched, the aim is to transform thale cress (good old Arabidopsis thaliana) so that it digests the pollutant formaldehyde.

Masayuki Yamamura told Nature industrial groups don’t want to get involved with the BioBrick Registry because of the registry’s open-access provisions, which prevents patents being filed on genes that go into it. Participants in GenoCon will be able to keep sequences they use secret.

The blog Lab Rat writes about a paper published in Nature Reviews Microbiology by Michael Kohanski and colleagues at Boston University that proposes the use of synthetic biology techniques to look at systems biology problems, something that Wendell Lim at UCSF has done in systems such as signalling networks and scaffold proteins.

The paper looks at the complexity of drug-target interactions and how a network-based approach, coupled with synthetically assembled combinations of genes introduced into bacteria using phages, could be used to probe how the cellular network behaves when hit by drugs and combinations of them.

From Lab Rat:

“By using synthetic genes to disrupt or alter the proposed antibiotic network novel drug targets could be discovered. If turned into a high-throughput system this would be far more useful than the current screening system which tests for a potential drugs interaction with a target, rather than the ability of this interaction to lead to cell death.”

The added genes might themselves form part of a longer-lasting antibiotic (or a family of them), Lab Rat concludes:

“Using combinations of drugs at lower concentrations, or aiding antibiotics by introducing them along with synthetic genes in bacteriophages allows an increased shelf-life of the drugs that we currently possess as well as providing potential systems to aid the discovery of new antibiotics.”

Life and Geneart

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Life Technologies has succeeded in buying a majority, 74 per cent stake in Geneart, the German maker of synthetic genes and DNA segments, propelling Life into the nascent synthetic-biology field.

“The burgeoning field of synthetic biology is filled with opportunities where many of Life Technologies’ genomic and sequencing products already play lead roles,” said Gregory Lucier, chairman and CEO of Life Technologies in a statement. “Just as Life Technologies is a pioneer in genetic sequencing, cloning and regenerative medicine, we will be able to directly participate and lead in synthetic biology by offering the tools our customers need to accelerate discoveries in this emerging field.”