Since 2012, significant progress has been made in establishing the UK as a world leader through its capacity in synthetic biology. 2016’s ‘BioDesign for the Bio-economy’ report from the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council celebrates the achievements but also makes the case for formalised standards that will realise the full potential of this important innovation area. In this expert view from Michael Adeogun (Division Head) and Max Ryadnov (Science Area Leader) from the Analytical Science Division at the National Physical Laboratory we explore this evolving area in more detail...
The UK aims to achieve a £10bn UK synthetic biology market by 2030, capable of delivering substantial societal and economic impact nationally and internationally. Synthetic biology provides new solutions to major challenges by aiding the manufacture of complex molecules and materials that are currently difficult, expensive or impossible to produce. By innovating advanced manufacturing processes, synthetic biology can help generate more sustainable and affordable materials, chemicals and energy.
Recognising this considerable potential and our national research expertise, the UK government commissioned the Synthetic Biology Roadmap, published in July 2012. Significant progress has been made in the four years since the roadmap was published; the 2016 report states that total investment into synthetic biology research in the UK is second only to the US and amongst the largest per capita in the world. A comprehensive national network has now been established, comprising synthetic biology research centres, synthesis facilities, centres for doctoral training and an innovation and knowledge centre to drive commercial translation. A rapidly growing community of SMEs engaged in developing straightforward, cost effective off-the-shelf technologies has also emerged and is actively pursuing a broad range of applications and products for different sectors ranging from healthcare to energy.
The Role of Metrology
This community, strengthened by innovations in miniaturisation, automation and metrology, is taking experimental science through the design-test-build phase to a new level of enhanced productivity and reliability. With such rapid progress, the 2016 plan states the need for technical standards to support this expansion. These standards are applicable to the biological parts – “bio-parts” – that are produced at the molecular and cellular level. To be used in the manufacture of different products in a predictable and reproducible manner these parts must be characterised; what they are made of, how do they assemble together and what are their functions in different situations. By also extending standardisation to cover the biological processes involved in manufacturing bio-parts, the speed of technological development can be increased while costs are reduced substantially.
Industry should play a central role in the standardisation of synthetic biology. This is an area that we at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's National Measurement Institute, are working on. As the UK’s home of measurement, with over 100 years’ experience in helping new technologies make the transition from lab to market, NPL ( @ ) is the place for supporting innovation and commercialisation in synthetic biology. NPL undertakes world-leading research in synthetic biology from new bio-parts and processes to innovative measurement approaches and fundamental standards that classify these parts. NPL provides the national capability for the testing and validation of synthetic biology technologies, ensuring the UK benefits from these amazing new technologies as soon as possible.
The benefit of bridging the gap between science and commerce with metrology is clear. Standardisation will ensure the reproducibility of bio-parts and the processes behind their production, while well-characterised standards will accelerate the uptake of technologically advanced approaches by a broader range of markets. In particular this is important for growing SMEs that explore new challenges and enter new markets. NPL is providing bespoke measurements, infrastructure and know-how by engaging synthetic biology businesses directly.
For example, NPL is working with Ingenza Ltd, a Scottish industrial biotechnology SME with a broad customer base which applies synthetic biology to the manufacture of industrial products, such as in the production of protein therapeutics. Ingenza operates laboratories for the construction and optimisation of engineered anti-microbial strains; NPL is working with them to provide a measurement platform that enables the discovery and design of new antibiotics which will address the global concern of antimicrobial resistance. Discovery, design, even the enhancement of antibiotic potency, must allow for pre-clinical and clinical studies which rely on metrology for success. The choice of parameter to be reported, and consequently the meaning and interpretation of results by the researchers all rely on a basic measurement platform and a reliable clinical trial should be repeatable to this standard. On the other side of the coin, trial subjects need assurance around their safety and wellbeing; clinical practice requiring compliance with certain standards provides this.
Among their capabilities, Ingenza works to enhance industrial production processes and help the scale-up of synthetic biology technologies – an integral part of productivity and commercialisation of a business. As a ‘young’ sector, many synthetic biology research areas and projects are still concepts which need to be tested before they are scaled-up to commercialisation. There are many variables to factor in when looking to scale-up production of a synthetic biology product, all of which need to be referenced to standards to provide certainty in the right concepts. Being able to characterise and measure these potential products with certainty is a key attribute in deciding which synthetic biological products are adopted, and ultimately commercialised, by industry.
By enabling concepts to be translated more rapidly and reliably into commercially viable products or processes though metrology, the cost of entering the synthetic biology market may be reduced, its competitiveness enhanced and the delivery of its benefits and services accelerated. This will help the UK be competitive in synthetic biology for years to come. The importance of maximising the economic benefits is clearly recognised in the Roadmap and NPL is putting in place the protocols that will help bring this to fruition.
This is a guest post from Michael Adeogun (Division Head), pictured right and Max Ryadnov (Science Area Leader), left, from the Analytical Science Division at the National Physical Laboratory. If you would like to submit an Expert View, please contact our Editor Luke Upton (Editor at BioBasedWorld.com).
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