Penn State professor co-chairs roadmap to guide synthetic biology investments

Jamie Oberdick
July 29, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Some of the potential applications of engineering biology, or synthetic biology, sound like science fiction: genetically engineered organisms that produce plastics from carbon dioxide and synthetic gut microbes that detect and wipe out invading organisms before you get sick. Pulling off such futuristic synthetic biology solutions for a wide range of societal problems is the purpose of a technical roadmap recently published by the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC).

The EBRC roadmap is the work of more than 80 scientists and engineers from 30 universities and 12 companies, including Howard Salis, associate professor of biological engineering and chemical engineering at Penn State. Salis was co-chair of the EBRC Roadmapping Working Group, which produced the roadmap. In this role, Salis served as the chair of a top-level subsection titled “Gene Editing, Synthesis, Assembly” and personally wrote much of the subsection. In addition, he is currently serving on the EBRC Council. 

“The roadmap has several audiences,” Salis said. “Federal agencies looking to fund the most important areas of biotech research; industrial, medical and agricultural biotech companies who wish to anticipate future developments; and emerging faculty looking to prioritize their research.”

The roadmap is, in part, highly technical, having “Technical Themes” as one of its two main sections. However, the other main roadmap section, “Application Sectors,” urges investment in synthetic biology by all federal government agencies, such as the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. 

The roadmap will serve to guide these investments not only to improve our food supply, public health and environment, but to fuel the economy and maintain America’s leadership in synthetic biology. It stresses the importance of coordinated efforts among researchers, funding agencies, policymakers, government organizations and other stakeholders to fully realize the field’s potential.

The roadmap also supports the federal Engineering Biology Research and Development Act of 2019, which is intended to “provide for a coordinated federal research program to ensure continued United States leadership in engineering biology.” This initiative was introduced in November 2018 in response to China and the United Kingdom making significant commitments to synthetic biology.  

“The question for government is: If all of these avenues are now open for biotechnology development, how does the U.S. stay ahead in those developments as a country?” said Douglas Friedman, a leader on the roadmap project and executive director of the EBRC. “This field has the ability to be truly impactful for society, and we need to identify engineering biology as a national priority, organize around that national priority, and take action based on it.”

There are already multiple synthetic biology success stories that reflect both research and economic achievement. 

“There are both traditional and startup companies leveraging synthetic biology technologies to develop novel biotech products,” Salis said. “Organisms that produce biorenewable materials; diagnostics to detect the Zika virus, Ebola and tuberculosis; and soil bacteria that fix nitrogen into ammonia for improved plant growth. There are many examples — there's an entire ecosystem of synthetic biology companies, and the list keeps growing.”

Salis’ own synthetic biology research at Penn State has proven fruitful. One example involves engineering microorganisms to detect and respond to specific chemicals, with a variety of potential applications in medical diagnostics; chemical, biological and explosive agent detection; and environmental remediation. His lab also has rationally designed and engineered metabolic pathways and genetic circuits to produce smart chemical factories. He believes that the roadmap will greatly expand research such as this across the U.S.

The roadmap also keeps in mind that genetically engineered organisms can be a controversial issue, and stresses that the scientific community is committed to engaging with the public before their introduction. This includes addressing any potential ethical, legal and societal implications of consumer-facing products and technologies, along with discussing large-scale benefits. 

“The opportunity is immense,” Friedman said. 

The EBRC is partially funded by the National Science Foundation and is centered at the University of California, Berkeley.  

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 29, 2019