Synthetic biology is an exciting discipline that sits at the crux of the intersection between design, biology, computing and manufacturing. This emerging field applies the “Design-Build-Test” principles of engineering to biology and leverages all that has been discovered through genomic studies and DNA sequencing.
Recently, Western University announced that it will be starting degree programs in synthetic biology at both the undergrad and graduate levels. In large part, these programs have been made possible thanks to the support of Western University’s Interdisciplinary Development Initiatives (IDI) Program – which provides seed funding for projects that further the university’s research and teaching mission, attract scholars and graduate students and bring it prestige.
We spoke to the team that spearheaded the initiative – David Edgell, Kathleen Hill & Bogumil Karas (the “IDI Team”) – to find out more about what Western’s synthetic biology (SynBio) program hopes to achieve.
What does the SynBio community look like at Western?
What you notice first about the SynBio@Western community is the enthusiasm, growth and diverse membership. You can find SynBio researchers in many different faculties (Science, Medicine & Dentistry, Engineering and Arts and Humanities). What caught our eye at the very beginning was the number of students engaged in synthetic biology. These students were looking for more opportunities for academic training and research experience in this broad field. We also noticed industry requests for student training in research and business in the synthetic biology field. We recognized that there is key expertise within the community at Western in designing microbes and applying synthetic biology approaches to agriculture and health sectors. We saw a need for the development of student training in this important area.
What led to successfully securing IDI Program support for synthetic biology?
There were a number of pieces in place that helped with the application. First, the student engagement, faculty research expertise, environment of collaboration at Western, the recent development of professional graduate programs, the greater engagement with industry and the entrepreneurial spirit and experience at Western set up a fantastic context to assemble a structure to formally enable student training in SynBio. Second, our researchers have also taken the SynBio discoveries to the lecture halls and redesigned courses to encompass interdisciplinary learning in this field. We have enjoyed collaborative teaching with faculty in the Sciences, Medicine and Arts and Humanities. There has been growth in student clubs and communities in genetics, ethics and synthetic biology. Third, we have been enjoying the growth in our seminar series and annual symposium that have helped raise the profile of SynBio research across campus. In addition, we already have a SynBio start-up (Designer Microbes Inc.) operating from Western’s incubator, The Stiller Center, which hopefully will inspire more students to start up their own companies after graduation. Continued funding successes in synthetic biology projects are adding fuel to the individual and collaborative research programs, and are also helping to raise the profile of synthetic biology at Western. We would also like to acknowledge and thank Ontario Genomics for its support of synthetic biology – which helped contribute to the success of Western University’s IDI proposal.
Why is the IDI program a good fit for synthetic biology?
The underlying motivation behind the IDI program at Western is to promote research and teaching initiatives that involve the participation and collaboration of individuals across discipline boundaries. Synthetic biology by its nature is interdisciplinary, encompassing research and teaching from genetics, biochemistry, engineering, computational biology, and ethics. Thus, the goals of the SynBio@Western proposal were perfectly aligned with Western’s vision for interdisciplinary initiatives. Moreover, the research and academic community in synthetic biology at Western were already developing into an example of what is envisioned in the IDI program. The IDI program at Western has an established record of success for providing a framework and structure that nurtures new initiatives through their early years, and providing funding in areas that are difficult to fund over multiple years through traditional granting mechanisms.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve by the end of the funding period?
We will see a collaborative graduate research program, scholarship awards that will support undergraduate and graduate research, the ability to bring high-quality scientists to Western for a Synthetic Biology seminar series, and support to continue the annual Synthetic Biology Symposium at Western.
Are there other SynBio degree-granting programs in Canada or abroad?
Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field and yes, in our research, we identified different communities that are developing in Canada and globally. Degree programs are not numerous and so this initiative is really in the first wave of formal training programs, and we have the opportunity to make a unique path in student training. Currently under development for September 2019 is an undergraduate degree program in Synthetic Biology that will be jointly hosted by the Departments of Biochemistry and Biology at Western that will provide students with formal classes in synthetic biology as well as opportunities to participate in synthetic biology research projects.
Now in its third year, tell us about Western’s annual SynBio Symposium
The Synthetic Biology Symposium 3.0 is coming up on Thursday July 26, 2018 on Western’s campus. The Symposium, initially organized by Murray Junop, started as way to encourage interest and collaboration in synthetic biology research at Western. The first symposium was a resounding success, and it helped with the recruitment of Bogumil Karas to Western from the J. Craig Venter Institute. With key support from Ontario Genomics, the Symposium grew in the second year to over 200 participants from Western and other institutions, including McMaster, Waterloo and University of Toronto. A key objective of the Symposium was to provide a venue for undergraduate (including iGEM teams), graduate and postdoctoral trainees to present their synthetic biology research. This year, we are hoping to capitalize on momentum in grant successes to forge meaningful and productive collaborations with synthetic biologists from academic and biotechnology sectors, and we encourage all interested parties to attend. Our Twitter feed is https://twitter.com/Synbiosymp and the website is https://www.synbiowestern.com/. RSVP now – early registrations will be given priority for talks or posters (Early Bird period ends on June 26th). We hope to see you on July 26th!
Is Western University connected to other Canadian SynBio initiatives?
Yes, we are actively engaged with colleagues about upcoming synthetic biology initiatives. In particular, interest is growing in creating a Canadian component of the Genome Project – Write initiative, which aims to build on sequencing collected during Genome Project – Read to build synthetic chromosomes and organisms from the ground up. The first GP-Write Canada meeting is being organized by Vincent Martin (Concordia) and Bogumil Karas and will take place on August 13-14 in Montreal (https://www.gpwritecanada.com/).
Do you have any plans for further collaboration to strengthen these ties?
There are indeed opportunities to strengthen ties. We look forward to this through our upcoming Synthetic Biology Symposium and our sharing of research ideas with visitors and collaborators. We look forward to adding to speakers to the Western Synthetic Biology seminar series, and we are keen to assemble communities of researchers for future funding initiatives for synthetic biology research projects.
What is your vision for a successful SynBio community in 5 to 10 years?
We would like to see a seamless pathway for our students upon entering Western as undergraduates to gain academic and research training in leading edge Synthetic Biology science that will help them transition into their careers in SynBio-related areas. We envision close collaborative ties with industrial partners and other postsecondary programs in Canada, and hope that this IDI will lead to a greater synthetic biology presence in the biotechnology sector through spinoffs that develop as a result of training and research supported through the IDI. With the development of an undergraduate degree in Synthetic Biology and a Collaborative Synthetic Biology Graduate Program, we envision Western as the “go-to” destination for training and research in synthetic biology in Canada.