The Present and Future State of Synthetic Biology in Canada

Synthetic biology: biotech, the next generation

Synthetic biology, in the broadest sense, creatively combines biology and engineering to produce innovations across multiple sectors. This multidisciplinary field of science and technology promises to unlock new solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems, from food security to climate change to cancer treatment. It encompasses the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems and the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes. Synthetic biology uses genetic tools like gene editing to engineer new biological products and processes; increasing standardization and automation of these tools makes synthetic biology increasingly accurate and efficient.

At the inaugural Canada SynBio 2018 conference in March, more than 300 attendees took part in the first national conference in Canada focused on engineering biology, in partnership with ISED Canada, Genome Canada and regional Genome Centres, the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, MaRS Discovery District and Autodesk, alongside sponsors Integrated DNA Technologies, Twist Bioscience, and CropLife Canada. Stakeholders from government, business, academia and others shared the excitement of the first exchange of thought and strategy on this file at the national level. Four themes for moving forward emerged: Industry and Commercialization, Public Relations and Trust, Training and Education, and the Pursuit of a Future Vision and Governance.

While there remain significant policy and regulatory hurdles to navigate, synthetic biology has already demonstrated enormous potential to provide innovative solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow. The global competition over research, technology transfer and commercialization in synthetic biology can be measured in the degree to which investment in the field has increased. In 2017 alone, early stage synthetic biology companies raised $1.7 billion globally. The late entrepreneur and technology visionary Steve Jobs recognized the enormous potential inherent in this realm: “I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be the intersection of biology and technology,” he said. “A new era is beginning.”

As discussed during the SynBio 2018 conference, Canada has the potential to be a global synthetic biology leader in health care, environment, natural resources, agri-food, advanced materials and manufacturing and discovery research. But Canadian policy and law makers must act now for us to be globally competitive and achieve our regional and national goals.

Already, synthetic biology innovation has produced beef-free hamburgers from Impossible Foods, crops that produce their own fertilizer from Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks (both of which mitigate climate change), dairy-free milk from Perfect Day, clothes made from Bolt Threads’ using protein-based, sustainable yarn by Stella McCartney, and a fast, inexpensive Zika virus test using a piece of paper the size of a stamp.

But a more concerted development of policy is required for the sector to advance in a way that addresses its growth requirements, supports the effective allocation of resources, and pro-actively confronts the broader social implications of synthetic biology. Canada’s success in harnessing the full potential in this field depends on its ability to rapidly and effectively achieve a coherent and thoughtful policy mix that is well-attuned to the needs of all relevant stakeholders, especially the public that will benefit most from its development.

For more information, read the Canada SynBio 2018 discussion paper The Present and Future State of Synthetic Biology in Canada (Kinder, Jeff and Robbins, Mark, The Institute on Governance, 2018).