March 2010 Archives

The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report on Bioengineering and synthetic biology plays a prominent part in the report alongside genetically modified (GM) crops and stem cells.

We found good indications that the UK is learning from past experiences in bioengineering when handling new emerging technologies, such as synthetic biology. The Government and Research Councils have recognised the value of synthetic biology early, and are providing funding. There is good activity in public engagement on synthetic biology. However we are concerned that while research is well funded there is not enough forethought about synthetic biology translation, for example developing DNA synthesis capability, which would provide the UK with an excellent opportunity to get ahead internationally. If this is not addressed, synthetic biology runs the risk of becoming yet another story of the UK failing to capitalise on a strong research base and falling behind internationally.

One of the problems pointed out to the committee during the evidence-gathering stage was that UK industry is not exactly well-positioned to benefit from synthetic biology. Although the pharmaceutical industry in the UK is comparatively strong, other sectors that could make use of materials produced using synthetic biology have been weakened by the flight of manufacturing from the country.

Ray Elliott, head of strategic projects at Syngenta, told the committee in January: “We have an interest in synthetic biology, but we are watching it. Most of it, at the moment, is happening in microbes but it could translate into plants. In terms of industrialisation, there are not many players in the UK who could take up synthetic-biology products.”

Philips Magnotech troponin sensor artist's impressionA recent Nanosensors KTN seminar held at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington provided an opportunity to show how biotech, nanotechnology and electronics are being combined in a new generation of portable instruments. Dion Klunder, a scientist at Philips Research, described the trade-offs that go into taking a technology that uses small particles and putting it into something that can be used in the field.

Although the original plan was to use the Magnotech system as a drug detector that could be used by police in the same way they would use a breathaliser, the emphasis has switched at Philips to speeding up the diagnosis of medical conditions, kicking off with heart attacks. Bedside staff can use instruments like that to work out quickly what treatment the patient needs.

“If possible, you want to stratify patients in the ambulance,” said Klunder. “In that way you can enable minimally invasive medicine.”

The reality today is that it takes a while to get the results back from a central laboratory. Although the actual tests are quick, the delay lies in the amount of time it takes to get the sample there and the result back, on top of the time that a sample may have to wait before being processed.

The title of the paper by a team from places as widespread as the University of Chicago, Cairo University and the Argonne National Laboratory gives the answer away, so I won’t repeat it here. The researchers mined genetic databases, including 2000 genomes and a large number of gene tags to predict which genes the most widespread in nature.

The answer is a bit unexpected, although there is a subtlety in the definition of the problem: it’s not the gene that results in the most protein, but the one best at “spreading its DNA around”.

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