Dr Jennifer Molloy from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge discusses synthetic biology and its potential uses.
CSF: You are the Coordinator of OpenPlant in the Department of Plant Sciences. What does your role entail and what are your responsibilities?
JM: OpenPlant is creating open technologies to engineer plant biology: from reprogramming plant development to producing useful products like drugs to improving the efficiency of photosynthesis to increase crop yield. We are a consortium of many labs across Cambridge and Norwich that are striving not only to do excellent science, increase our knowledge about plants and deliver applications with societal benefits, but importantly to promote working practices that ensure what we produce is accessible and useable by other researchers and even more diverse groups. Along with our Project Manager in Norwich, I’m responsible for coordinating activities that bring people together and promote this open exchange. These include our seed funding scheme, intellectual property working group, informal meetups and various hacking/making sessions.
CSF: What do you most enjoy about your work?
JM: I’m excited by the science and technologies involved in synthetic biology and think they’ll change the world, so it’s fulfilling to be part of the journey and collaborate with so many interesting and enthusiastic researchers across multiple disciplines. I’m also passionate about sharing knowledge and whether open source practices could accelerate science and innovation, in what way and what that might mean for people who have historically had limited access to scientific knowledge and tools. I’m a biologist by training but became more and more interested in these questions during my PhD on mosquito control so this work gives me a ringside seat on the process. My work is also really varied, from assembling 3D printed microscope parts for a workshop, discussing legal issues and standards for sharing DNA sequences, planning and development of an interdisciplinary community lab and organising lots of interesting events.
CSF: What is synthetic biology?
JM: It’s an approach to biology that takes an engineering and design perspective. Most biological research tries to work out what is happening by observing and manipulating existing biological systems. Synthetic biologists use this knowledge to design, build and test novel systems or completely redesign the existing ones to see if what we think we know still stands in different configurations and ultimately to learn something new. Mostly this involves engineering at the DNA or gene level, for instance to design a pathway of proteins that produce a novel drug. Some synthetic biologists work at a different level of biology trying to change the underpinning genetic code or create synthetic cells.
CSF: Synthetic biology, biotechnology and bioengineering… what’s the difference?
JM: Biotechnology is a very broad term for any technology based on biology including food production, biofuels, manufacturing drugs like insulin and many other applications. Biotechnology might not involve much engineering thinking while bioengineering specifically applies engineering principles to biological systems but again in a very broad way; from generating artificial organs to new microscopes. Synthetic biology is an approach that could be applied to either of these areas but is characterised by a focus on design and engineering of DNA and the cellular machinery that interacts with it. They’re all related!
CSF: This is an emerging field. What kinds of things could it support or be used for?
JM: Here in Cambridge researchers are working on developing a low-cost arsenic biosensor for use in Nepal and Bangladesh where contaminated water is a real health issue. Other groups are trying to increase yield in crop plants, improve plants and algae as sources of energy and alter other plant properties. Our collaborators and other labs around the world are producing complex novel compounds like flavourings and drugs. They’re also lowering production costs by transferring genetic pathways into organisms that can be grown more easily. Applications that hit the headlines this year included synthesis of opiate painkillers in yeast rather than poppies, making organs from pigs more suitable for transplantation and more accurate editing of genes with a protein called CRISPR, opening up many opportunities for novel treatments but also an ethical debate.
CSF: You are coordinating the ‘Family science makers’ event at Cambridge Makespace. Can you give us an idea of what participants can expect? Is this event for a specific audience or can anyone join in?
JM: Anyone aged 8+ can join in and the event is designed for families to build scientific equipment together, breaking open the black boxes that scientists use to measure and observe nature. Participants can expect to build a microscope, microfluidic devices to mix liquids in tiny quantities and circuits to measure the electrical signals that control our muscles. We’ll then design and do some experiments! There’ll be cutting, glueing, soldering, mixing and more so everybody working together and all ages helping each other out will be essential.
CSF: Are there many challenges in organising an event like this?
JM: There are a lot of materials to pull together and some of the builds are complex so there’s a definite chance that not everything will work - but that is good training for doing real science! We hope that participants will arrive with enthusiasm, a sense of adventure and playfulness and a willingness to tinker and then we’ll have no problem overcoming any challenges that arise on the day.
CSF: What are you hoping people will take away from this event?
JM: A better understanding of how science experiments work and how people and tools are both necessary to observe new things. Especially we would like to show that in this exciting world of the internet and 3D printers, it is possible to build amazing scientific instruments from scratch and do some really neat experiments, but also that you can take inspiration from cutting edge technologies like microfluidics with just some sticky tape and food dye. We hope people will have fun and go away to try things at home!