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.”
Although it’s not essential to have the end-user of a microbe-grown cellulose plastic replacement in the same country as the people developing the technology, it makes life a lot easier if they are located close together. However, in electronics, companies such as ARM have carved out a solid niche with most of their customers sitting either on the West Coast of the US or in the Far East.
One way that the committee sees a way for the UK to gain an edge in industrialised synthetic biology is to fund a more advanced DNA-synthesis effort. Although it sounds like a good idea, I’d question whether this statement from the committee is true: “Given that there is widespread consensus that developing a national DNA synthesis capability would put the UK at the forefront of synthetic-biology translation…we recommend that the Government should invest in a national initiative to develop this capability.”
There’s a “widespread consensus” on this? Lord Drayson, the minister for science, gave one of the most bizarre answers to a question on DNA synthesis from the committee that demonstrates not only was he not on the same page, he hadn’t even read the same book. Bear in mind that Lord Drayson is a former roboticist and headed a pharmaceutical company, so should have some understanding of the state of play in DNA synthesis even if he hasn’t touched the stuff in a while. Robots play a key role in a number of the current techniques for building longish strands of DNA.
This is what he did say in response to whether the Technology Strategy Board might support companies building DNA synthesis machines:
“It will, but one must be measured in recognising that this has been described as a phase that moves from reading to writing the genetic code of life. That is a big deal that has some major ethical considerations. We need to be very clear about what that presents in terms of risks and challenges and go through an effective public engagement process to ensure that this does not get ahead of where the general public is in terms of the perception of the balance of risks and benefits.”
DNA synthesis technology per se is largely orthogonal to the ethical considerations. It’s what you write that’s important not how you write it. DNA synthesis is chemistry. Craig Venter is not playing God by synthesising a genome from scratch: he’s just working on the most expensive cloning operation in history. (I appreciate that the techniques being developed at the Venter Institute will show much of a synthetic genome can be generated from scratch, but the current experiment focuses on a genome that is already common in nature.)
All the time that the government is worrying about public engagement, people in the US and Germany are merrily pushing ahead on their own form of Moore’s Law in creating longer and longer strands of DNA. The relevant doubt that Paul Drayson should have faced with the question of building a national competency in DNA synthesis is how important it is as a technology to a research or industrial base.
The world is not overrun with DNA synthesis companies: you can practically count the important ones on the fingers of one hand. The thing about DNA manufacture is that you don’t really have to do it that often, and when you do, you don’t need very long bits. In fact, until people have learned to handle very long strands of synthesised DNA, the technology of synthesis isn’t all that useful. The biggest issue that Venter’s group has had in its project is in assembling the genome from its synthesised parts.
The DNA synthesised within a cell is surrounded by a whole host of chaperone proteins that stop it snapping. Stripped of these helpers, synthetic DNA is very much more fragile. So, there are good reasons for moving comparatively short chunks of DNA into the cellular environment quite quickly. It’s handy to be able to order individual genes or combinations of them from a company such as Geneart or DNA 2.0 rather than extracting them from a sample, but at 40 cents a base pair, this is already reasonably cheap and accessible.
Having asked a number of researchers about the relative importance of DNA synthesis, I’ve come to the conclusion that, very often, the synthesis of a single line of DNA is the wrong answer. Very often, the requirement is to build libraries of genetic sequences so that researchers can see which works best. Until science has a much better understanding of inter-gene interactions, directed evolution and selection works a whole lot better than pre-planning and synthesising.
What has happened so far is that some TSB funding has gone into technology being developed by ITI Life Sciences together with Ginkgo Bioworks in Massachusetts: this concentrates more on assembling sequences from pre-existing sequences in a more automated fashion than on synthesis per se. Other work outside the UK focuses more on editing than synthesis. Take the “DNA word processor” dreamt up at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. This is basically a giant robotic polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine that takes up most of a lab. But it makes short work of combining, editing and deleting sequences that could take weeks to perform manually. It is also very suitable for creating genetic libraries. If this kind of work is what the select committee thinks of as DNA synthesis, then that’s good. But if their view is of a machine that turns a list of base pairs into one long double strand of DNA, they are looking in the wrong direction.
Having said that, the select committee presents a more realistic perspective on bioengineering than the current government. As with the recent Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) report on nanotechnology, the administration seems obsessed to the point of distraction with safety and public engagement issues. But if you wait long enough for those issues to be resolved, someone elsewhere in the world will have made those ethical decisions for you.