In each issue of the Newsletter we feature an expert voice from the biobased economy. In this issue, we talk exclusively to Dr Lionel Clarke, Director of BionerG and Co-Chair of the Government’s Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (SBLC).
How did you first get into synthetic biology?
For many years I have been extremely interested in the challenge of addressing greater sustainability in a world of ever-increasing global demand for fuels and chemicals. Photosynthesis generates important molecular building blocks, but further processing is invariably required to synthesize the final products of interest. Chemical engineering and processing are mature technologies used for more than a century to modify crude oil hydrocarbons, but, with the exception of yeast fermentation, the equivalent biological technologies that could be applied to generate or modify more sustainable bio-feedstocks are mostly still at a research and development stage. About five or six years ago, Professors Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont took the initiative to visit me to tell me about the work that was being carried out in their new Synthetic Biology department in Imperial College and I was immediately struck by the potential relevance of this emerging capability to the sustainability challenges I was focusing on at the time.
What do you see as the most exciting opportunities in the future?
Although my entry point into the field was from the perspective of sustainable fuels and chemicals, the challenges of reaching commercial scale remain substantial, and are taking time to overcome. Meantime there are many valuable smaller-scale opportunities that may be realized in the nearer term, such as biosensors, bio-catalysts and novel routes to vaccines. Particular value may arise where biological processes can overcome limitations of existing chemical processing equivalents, such as producing target chiral molecules for the pharmaceutical industry. From an industrial perspective, the main benefit of synthetic biology is not so much that it does things fundamentally differently from what has been identified and demonstrated at lab scale over the past several decades, but rather that it can facilitate and hence accelerate the process of translating an idea into a working solution. It achieves this by taking understanding of biological systems accumulated over many years and applying a more engineering-based and information-rich toolkit to the design and synthesis process. For me, the most exciting aspect is not associated with any single potential application but rather the fact that it provides a powerful new capability that could be applied not only to any of a wide range of current application challenges but also to potentially new ones as yet hardly envisaged.
What are the main challenges?
We are very fortunate in the UK to have identified synthetic biology as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’, and from this to have allocated the time and resource required to develop a roadmap and to invest in a range of underpinning research and technology platforms. This is providing us with the human and physical resources needed to build up the sector from a position of deep understanding and via shared learnings. Key challenges include giving ourselves the opportunity to think ahead through the issues and to establish the frameworks needed to ensure that the anticipated benefits will be effectively delivered. The Roadmap helps us to consider relevant issues by setting a long-term vision, and establishing key values for the community, such as the responsible research and innovation framework.
What do you think of the term “biohacking”?
Having lived and worked in the USA I am aware that our ‘common language’ is not so common and can be confusing – should you walk or drive on the pavement, for example? ‘Hacking’ can be used to describe anything from playful interest to illegal intrusion but possibly has more negative associations in the UK than in the US due to recent phone hacking publicity for example. However, leaders of such communities seem to be motivated more by the benefits of promoting ‘citizen science’ than what one might associate with the word ‘hacking’ – so it is clearly important to gain a clearer appreciation of what these communities are really about and then consider how well this is being communicated.
Do you think synthetic biology research needs to be regulated?
Not only do I think it should be regulated, but it is regulated – EU directives for contained use and deliberate release rigorously apply – moreover any specific products that may be produced from such processes are themselves covered by further application-specific regulations. But it is also very important to ensure that regulations remain relevant to the latest cutting edge developments and emerging trends and that best practice be shared internationally. The result needs to balance risks and opportunities proportionately. This applies equally to any emerging technology, not only to synthetic biology. The regulatory process is quite dynamic, constantly re-assessing and responding as needed to fresh innovations as they arise. It is worth noting that essentially all the core biological processes being applied so far in the field of synthetic biology derive from discoveries and developments made over the past several decades, and regulations have been introduced and continuously reviewed and refined alongside.
There’s a lot of controversy about ethical aspects of synthetic biology. How do you respond to critics and to those people who say you’re “playing God”?
It is very important that we listen respectfully to all views and concerns, so that the right balance can be struck. It is important to recognize that many studies and deliberations have specifically set out to gather a broad range of opinions and to address the ethical issues, such as the UK Public Dialogue. These deliberative and transparent processes provide helpful insights and guidance, and remind us that broader range of issues must often be taken into consideration than scientific evidence alone. Because synthetic biology is essentially a facilitating technology, it is more relevant to consider issues on a case-by-case basis as reflected in our approach to Responsible Research and Innovation.