Biofab plan to speed up synthetic biology work

Six US universities have committed to a plan to set up the first ‘biofab’, a centre that will turn genes into reusable parts in a plan to streamline the design of heavily re-engineered microbes.

Speaking at the Synthetic Biology 4.0 conference in Hong Kong in mid-October, Stanford University researcher Drew Endy (pictured above) said a biofab is urgently needed to cut the cost of developing the microbes that are expected to produce, among other materials, a new generation of biofuels. He claimed groups from the universities of Alberta, Arizona, MIT, Stanford, California at Berkeley, UCSF as well as Berkeley Lab “are keen to participate”.

Endy cited Amyris Biotechnologies as an example, which has to date raised more than $110m in venture funding to re-engineer yeasts to produce a range of biofuels. “This is a huge success and should be celebrated. [But] you have experts spending a tremendous amount of time getting it to work. One of the questions we face in synthetic biology is, since we are 35 years, if not more, into this technology how do we go from a project that costs more than $100m and make it a $10m project? A $1m project? A $10,000 project? A project you might lay out on a workstation and then have it actually go?” Endy asked, presenting the biofab as part of the answer.“How do we make this a $1m project? A $10,000 project? A project you might lay out on a workstation and then watch it go? It would be a process that is a revolutionary change from today,” Endy said.

Musea Ventures general partner Talli Somekh said: “Something that Drew has convinced me of is in trying to create a biofab in the Bay Area. One thing that shocked me was how primitive the tools were.”

Zach Serber of Amyris agreed: “I think the biofab is a great idea. Amyris is already engaged in a biofab-like process, so we clearly see that it has value.”

The biofab as envisaged by Endy would extend the concept promoted by the BioBrick Foundation in which genes and other pieces of DNA are packaged as components catalogued in a registry. “On a superficial level, it looks awesome. If you go into it, there are some incredible things: a banana flavour generator; a fluorescence generator.”

The problem with the BioBrick parts registry as it stands is that the information is patchy. Synthetic biology researchers complain that a large number of the parts do not work and that it is hard to find information on how to use them. A study by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute found that the DNA sequences for a number of the parts in the registry were not accurate.

The aim of the biofab would be to take components donated by researchers and other providers of genetic parts and perform measurements and analysis that would make the DNA much easier to use. The biofab will not be responsible for synthesising the DNA itself. Instead it will store the useful sequences along with detailed electronic data sheets similar in concept to those supplied by the semiconductor intellectual property (IP) suppliers such as ARM and IPextreme. Users who want the actual DNA will be able to use the sequence data to synthesise it, perhaps through companies such as Blue Heron and Codon Devices, or obtain cloned DNA from other sources with access to the biofab data.

Although Endy coined the term biofab to describe, there is the possibility that the unofficial name will run into conflict with a Codon trademark. However, the working official title is the Joint Center for the Production and Standardisation of Biological Parts and Devices, Endy told E&T. He said he envisaged a staff of around 30 people.

The aim for the biofab is for it to be run as a non-profit organisation. Endy is currently trying to raise funding for its creation although he said the model funding has yet to be decided. He added: “It is not clear what the relationship would be with industry,” he said, adding that the hope is to build the biofab, like the BioBricks Foundation, around an open-source philosophy. One important distinction between the biofab data and open-source software is likely to be in how companies use the data. “The product of the biofab could be in the public domain but the users could protect their inventions without giving [their IP] away.”

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