Since 2016, the Synthetic Biology Australasia community has been organising a conference to bring together stakeholders in Australia, New Zealand and the broader Australasian region and develop the growing synthetic biology research field. This year, I represented the transformational bioinformatics group at the 3rd Synthetic Biology Australasia conference (SBA2019) in Brisbane, Australia.
SBA2019 was held over 3 days and attracted over 200 attendees from different disciplines, including molecular biology, computer science, social sciences and creative arts. Presentations by nationally- and internationally-recognised researchers in academia and industry covered a range of topics such as genetic circuitry, metabolic engineering, agriculture, commercialisation, sociology, responsible innovation, ethics and bioart.
The keynote talks of the conference gave some interesting insights into how synthetic biology is being used to design and develop applications that create impact. Chueh Loo Poh highlighted the importance of computational modelling for accelerating the synthetic biology Design-Build-Test-Learn life cycle. Louise Horsfall presented a talk about how they are using synthetic biology to genetically modify non-model organisms and how these organisms are being used to recover and recycle toxic metals (e.g., Lithium) from battery waste products for a more sustainable future. Dan Widmaier gave an interesting talk about how their company, Bolt Threads, are developing bio-based materials and the global impact these materials can have on the fashion and cosmetic industry.
Ecological and conservation
A major theme of the conference was how synthetic biology can be used to address the changes that occur in ecosystems arising from the global ‘climate breakdown’. Josh Wodak elegantly articulated the importance of synthetic biology in conservational biology and the development of new strategies for mitigating species extinction. The importance of synthetic biology in conservational biology was reiterated by Patrick Buerger, who gave an insightful talk about the threads to the Great Barrier Reef from thermal bleaching and how genetically modified bacteria may help to improve the thermal tolerance of coral.
To becoming more sustainable means increasing the use of bio-based materials and limiting the use of artificial materials. Because of this, another major focus of SBA2019 was how synthetic biology can be used to develop or improve the production of bio-based materials. Madeline Mitchell demonstrated how they are using synthetic biology to engineer cotton fibres with properties similar to artificial fibres and how this could help reduce chemical and microplastic pollution. Rob Willows showed how hydrogen gas can be produced efficiently by introducing an algal hydrogenase into bacteria or yeast, suggesting that synthetic biology approaches could be useful for engineering bacteria to produce alternative energy resources.
As synthetic biology touches on so many aspects of society, thorough discussions on the ethical and philosophical issues associated with synthetic biology and its potential applications were a major component of the conference. Both Lucy Carter and Aditi Mankad presented the results of a survey with the general public, to gauge how the public feels about synthetic biology and its use to solve problems. Reassuringly, the results of their survey showed that the general public was generally accepting of synthetic biology, but greater discussions on the risks, safety and implications of synthetic biology technology were crucial for improving its widespread adoption.
Another major theme of SBA2019 revolved around the idea of biodesign, which refers to the creation of new ideas and solutions with biology in mind. Ionat Zurr gave an interesting talk on the role artists can play in the creation of new ideas and future applications of synthetic biology, by enabling a more tactile approach to problem solving. Meanwhile, Jestin George talked about how effective communication between synthetic biologists and creative artists could help inspire one another to imagine, design, and innovate possible solutions with synthetic biology approaches.
Our Group Involvement
I presented a poster on my work and how the genomic signature of DNA sequences can be used to detect genetic alterations. The poster was well received and I am looking forward to following up on the resulting collaboration leads.