[Closes 5 March 2018] 2018 CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellowships

The CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (SynBioFSP) is pleased to announce the opening of the second round of CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Fellowships. The scheme aims to attract outstanding national and international early-career post-doctoral researchers (equivalent to Australian Academic Levels A and B, or in exceptional circumstances, Level C) to expand Australian research capacity in synthetic biology. A key element of the SynBio FSP is establishment of a collaborative community of practice extending across CSIRO and Australia more broadly, and linking into international efforts in the field. Research projects must demonstrate an ability to build Australian capacity in synthetic biology.

Fellowships will be hosted at a Host Organisation (usually an Australian University, but other Australian research organisations may also be eligible) and will be a partnership between the Fellow, CSIRO, and the Host Organisation. Fellows will be employed by the Host Organisation but will maintain a strong linkage to CSIRO through a partnering CSIRO Mentor(s) and various joint activities designed to support development of a synthetic biology community of practice across Australia. Fellows will have a Visiting Scientist appointment at CSIRO and may spend a portion of time physically located within a CSIRO research group if appropriate for the Fellowship project.

The SynBio FSP is built on a philosophy of responsible development of synthetic biology technology, striving for ethical outcomes and working within the bounds of social acceptance. Project proposals in the social sciences, as well as in lab-based research, are encouraged.

How to apply?

Further information and application instructions for the Fellowships are available at:https://research.csiro.au/synthetic-biology-fsp/work-with-us/synbio-fellowships/

Applications must be submitted by 5pm Australian Eastern Standard Time, Monday 5th March 2018.

Further enquiries can be directed to: SynBioFSP@csiro.au  

We strongly encourage women, people of Australian Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent, and other minority groups to apply.

Bio-solar panel developed by researchers at University of Cambridge and Imperial College London

A two-in-one solar bio-battery and solar panel has been created by researchers who printed living cyanobacteria and circuitry onto paper.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic micro-organisms that have been on Earth for billions of years. They are thought to be the primary reason why the Earth’s atmosphere is oxygen rich. Several synthetic biology groups in Cambridge are working on these useful organisams, including OpenPlant PI Prof Chris Howe and OpenPlant Fund grantee Dr Paolo Bombelli (both Department of Biochemistry).

Together with researchers from Imperial College London and Central Saint Martins, they demonstrated that cyanobacteria could be used as an ink and printed from an inkjet printer in precise patterns onto electrically conductive carbon nanotubes, which were also inkjet-printed onto the piece of paper. The team showed that the cyanobacteria survived the printing process and were able to perform photosynthesis so that small amounts of electrical energy could be harvested over a period of 100 hours.

A bio-solar panel made in this way, the approximate size of an iPad, could power a simple digital clock, and in separate experiments, a small LED light bulb.

The team suggest their breakthrough could lead to new types of electrical devices that are made from paper and printed photosynthetic bacteria. These could include disposable power supplies integrated into paper-based sensors for monitoring patients with diabetes or devices that resemble wallpaper but are in fact environmental sensors for monitoring air quality in the home.

Dr Marin Sawa, a co-author from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “We think our technology could have a range of applications such as acting as a sensor in the environment. Imagine a paper-based, disposable environmental sensor disguised as wallpaper, which could monitor air quality in the home. When it has done its job it could be removed and left to biodegrade in the garden without any impact on the environment.” 

New type of renewable energy

The solar bio-battery pushes forward research into a new type of renewable energy technology currently being developed by scientists globally called microbial biophotoltaics (BPV). It exploits the ability of cyanobacteria and other algae that use photosynthesis to convert light energy into an electrical current using water as the source of electrons.

One of the advantages of using BPVs to harvest energy from cells like cyanobacteria is that they can produce small amounts electricity in daylight and carry on producing it even in the dark from molecules produced in the light.

Some of the current limitations that scientists have previously faced when developing BPVs are that they are expensive to make, have low power output, and a short lifespan. All these drawbacks have prevented scientists from being able to scale up the technology to an industrial level.

The team says their approach of using an off-the-shelf inkjet printer to construct BPVs demonstrates a potential method for easily scaling up the technology, which may pave the way for its wider use.

Dr Andrea Fantuzzi, a co-author of the study from Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: “Paper-based BPVs are not meant to replace conventional solar cell technology for large-scale power production, but instead, could be used to construct power supplies that are both disposable and biodegradable. Their low power output means they are more suited to devices and applications that require a small and finite amount of energy, such as environmental sensing and biosensors.”

New types of paper-based sensors

The researchers suggest BPVs could be used in new forms of sensors built entirely from paper, which would mean that they are cheaper and more cost effective to make with less impact on resources and the environment.

Another example for BPVs, suggest the team, is in the healthcare industry.

Dr Andrea Fantuzzi said: “Paper-based BPVs integrated with printed electronics and biosensor technology could usher in an age of disposable paper-based sensors that monitor health indicators such as blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes. Once a measurement is taken, the device could be easily disposed of with low environmental impact and its ease of use could facilitate its direct employment by the patients. Furthermore, this approach has the potential to be very cost-effective, which could also pave the way for its use in developing countries with limited healthcare budgets and strains on resources.”

Next steps

The current paper-based BPV unit is a palm size. The next step will see the team scale up their proof-of-concept to A4 size to determine the electrical output on a larger scale.

Professor Christopher Howe, a co-author from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, added: “This is an exciting proof-of-concept. The challenge now is to make panels that are more powerful, long-lasting and robust.”


Sawa, Marin, Andrea Fantuzzi, Paolo Bombelli, Christopher J. Howe, Klaus Hellgardt, and Peter J. Nixon. "Electricity generation from digitally printed cyanobacteria." Nature Communications 8, no. 1 (2017): 1327.

Press release text is from Imperial College London and is available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.

Image credit: From publication, licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Call for Proposals: 5th International Synthetic & Systems Biology Summer School - SSBSS 2018

The Synthetic and Systems Biology Summer School (SSBSS) is a full-immersion five-day residential summer school on cutting-edge advances in systems and synthetic biology with lectures delivered by world-renowned experts. The 2018 Summer School will take place July 25-29, 2018 at Certosa di Pontignano in Tuscany, Italy.

The school provides a stimulating environment for students (from Master students to PhD students), Post-Docs, early career researches, academics and industry leaders. Participants will also have the chance to present their results (with Oral Talks and Posters), and to interact with their peers, in a friendly and constructive environment.

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Application: March 31, 2018

Oral Presentation/Poster Submission: March 31, 2018

Notification of Decision for Oral/Poster Presentation: April 28, 2018

Register here >>

Keynote Speakers

* PATRICK YIZHI CAI, University of Manchester, UK

* JOHN GLASS, J. Craig Venter Institute, USA

* PHILIPP HOLLIGER, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK

* JENS NIELSEN, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

* HARRIS WANG, Columbia University, USA


* LUCA ZAMMATARO, Yale University, USA


* Barbara Di Camillo, University of Padova, Italy

* Simone Furini, University of Siena, Italy

* Emanuele Domenico Giordano, University of Bologna, Italy

* Rodrigo Ledesma-Amaro, Imperial College London, UK

* Velia Siciliano, Italian Institute of Technology, Italy


Prof Giles Oldroyd joins Sainsbury Lab to engineer nitrogen-fixing cereals

Prof Giles Oldroyd, an OpenPlant PI who directs a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation programme of research to engineer nitrogen-fixing cereals has recently joined the Sainsbury Lab at University Cambridge after 15 years at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

Prof. Giles Oldroyd is a leading investigator in plant-symbiotic interactions, with a particular focus on the signalling processes that allow the establishment of nitrogen-fixing and arbuscular mycorrhizal associations. His work has provided the genetic underpinnings to understand the symbiosis signalling pathway that allows rhizobial recognition in legumes and mycorrhizal associations in most plants. He explained his interests in an introductory post on the SLCU website:

"I spent 15 years working at the John Innes Centre, attempting to understand how plants perceive symbiotic microorganisms present in the rhizosphere. Having contributed to a detailed understanding of symbiosis signalling, I now want to understand how this signalling process activates the developmental changes in the root leading to the formation of a nodule and intracellular bacterial infection."

I am very excited by the prospect that some day this research could address one of the greatest limitations to agricultural productivity
— Prof Giles Oldroyd, SLCU

Prof Oldroyd now leads an international programme funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the BBSRC that is attempting to engineer cereal recognition of rhizobial bacteria as the first step towards engineering nitrogen-fixing cereals.

"There remains much to be discovered before we are likely to be able to transfer nitrogen fixation to cereals. However, I am very excited by the prospect that some day this research could address one of the greatest limitations to agricultural productivity and I am particularly motivated by the fact that the beneficiaries of my work could be some of the poorest people on the planet."

The SynBio SRI welcomes the Oldroyd Lab to Cambridge and we look forward hearing more about their work in plant synthetic biology.

Prof Giles Oldroyd's homepage at SLCU >>

Essex Synthetic Biology Summer School: 2-6 July 2018

The Essex Synthetic Biology School (ESBS) is an intensive 5-day summer course targeting students and early career scientists interested in learning cutting edge experimental and computational methods to design and build biological systems directly from world-renowned experts, working with bacterial, yeast, plant and mammalian systems, in fields such as cancer and healthcare research, as well as industrial, agricultural and environmental synthetic biology.

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Synthetic biology is an emerging research and industrial field aiming at designing and engineering biological systems with specific functions. To do that, it integrates methods and technologies from biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science and mathematics to streamline the process of designing, building and testing biological systems. In the last 10 years, synthetic biology has contributed many ground breaking scientific results, including the first synthetic cell and the first synthetic chromosomes, and industrial applications, including the production of drugs and biofuels.

The School, located at the University of Essex in the U.K., comprises 20 lectures and 5 laboratory sessions, focusing on building pathways in bacteria and yeast.

Learn more and register by 1 June 2018 >>>

[Closes 14 March 2018] NSF-USDA-BBSRC Joint Funding Opportunity to Develop Breakthrough Ideas and Enabling Technologies to Advance Crop Breeding and Functional Genomics

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Biological Sciences Directorate (BIO), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have established a joint funding opportunity to support the development of breakthrough technologies that will enable significant advances in crop breeding. This opportunity aims to make high impact changes in the ability to translate basic knowledge of plant genomics to practical outcomes in crops of economic importance to the participating countries.

This NSF-BIO, USDA-NIFA and BBSRC Joint Activity is soliciting Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) proposals to support development of breakthrough ideas and technologies to speed the development for new crop varieties.

See more information below and at this page >>

There remain significant bottlenecks to improving crop varieties even if new traits or natural variants are identified, such as producing hybrids, understanding recombination, and epigenetic inheritance as examples. Translation of basic knowledge to practical outcomes can be accelerated by key emerging technologies that exploit genomics rapidly and effectively. This EAGER opportunity invites proposals to overcome these barriers to crop breeding in highly innovative and transformative ways. Investigators considering this opportunity should articulate how the enabling technologies would be used to improve crop breeding.

Areas of research that await breakthrough advances and are appropriate for this EAGER opportunity include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Advancing genome editing technology to generate new phenotypes for greater genetic gain
  • Achieving reliable and high throughput production of doubled haploids from genotypes that are currently recalcitrant to chromosome doubling to accelerate the breeding process in cereals and other crops
  • Controlling and understanding meiotic recombination to tap into inaccessible genetic resources in areas of low recombination and enabling whole genome manipulation
  • Modifying epigenetic inheritance to facilitate phenotypic changes related to environmental responses
  • Understanding mechanisms of heterosis, thereby generating and exploiting hybrid vigor for crop improvement

For this EAGER opportunity, emphasis should be on developing enabling technologies that will impact crops or model crop systems. Projects that focus solely on sequencing will not be considered. Funded projects relevant to the goals of the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) will be invited to become IWYP Aligned Projects.

Proposed studies should be potentially transformative and must be considered "high-risk, high-payoff" to achieve the goal of making technological breakthroughs to promote crop breeding. Studies should be compatible with the budget (up to $300,000 for US components and up to £200,000 for UK components) and time limits (2 years) of the EAGER funding mechanism. For collaborative US/UK EAGER projects, BBSRC will fund UK researchers up to £200,000 and NSF or NIFA will fund US researchers up to $300,000 including indirect costs. US only EAGERS are limited to $300,000 total including indirect costs. Further details are provided below for budgetary limits for UK partners. EAGER proposals may originate from US-UK partnerships or from US-only applicants. EAGERs solely involving UK applicants are not permitted. For more information on EAGERs, please review NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG).

More information >>


OpenPlant Fund supports open source multi-fluorescence imaging system published in PLOS One

The advent of easy-to-use open source microcontrollers, off-the-shelf electronics and customizable manufacturing technologies has facilitated the development of inexpensive scientific devices and laboratory equipment. In this study supported by the OpenPlant Fund, Isaac Nuñez, Tamara Matute and collaborators describe a multi-fluorescence imaging system that integrates low-cost and open-source hardware, software and genetic resources.


The illumination and optics system consists of readily available 470 nm LEDs, a Raspberry Pi camera and a set of filters made with low cost acrylics and the box design and flexible focusing allows imaging in scales ranging from single colonies to entire plates. The team also developed a set of genetic components (e.g. promoters, coding sequences, terminators) and vectors following the standard framework of Golden Gate, which allowed the fabrication of genetic constructs in a combinatorial, low cost and robust manner. In order to provide simultaneous imaging of multiple wavelength signals, they screened a series of long stokes shift fluorescent proteins that could be combined with cyan/green fluorescent proteins for 3-channel fluorescent imaging.

Open source Python code was developed to operate the hardware to run time-lapse experiments with automated control of illumination and camera and a Python module to analyze data and extract meaningful biological information. To demonstrate the potential application of this integral system, the team tested its performance on a diverse range of imaging assays often used in disciplines such as microbial ecology, microbiology and synthetic biology.

Isaac Nuñez appreciated the opportunity to work on the project with the support of OpenPlant: “OpenPlant funds were important because we are generating a real impact in research and teaching through interdisciplinarity. This project not only introduced us to new modes of work based on good practices, documentation and open source licensing but also allowed us to learn from different fields such as open hardware, design, FOSS and advanced DNA fab methods.”

In order to highlight the benefits of employing an open framework, the team formed an industry partnership with the Open Source company Backyard Brains (TM), which has significant experience in creating and distributing open educational and research technology for neuroscience in Latin America and worldwide (backyardbrains.com, backyardbrains.cl). In collaboration, the team assessed the potential use of their imaging statuon in a high school environment.  Author Tamara Matute explained “We have been able to use these resources in workshops in high schools, community spaces and cultural centres; and implement advanced practicals to teach in vitro synbio, DNA fab and microbiology. The open source and low cost nature of the resources has allowed citizens to better understand the principles behind gene expression analysis and modelling”

Together, their results demonstrate the successful integration of open source hardware, software, genetic resources and customizable manufacturing to obtain a powerful, low cost and robust system for education, scientific research and bioengineering. The paper was selected as Editor's Pick for the PLOS Open Source Toolkit Channel in December 2017.

Original Publication: Nuñez, I., Matute, T., Herrera, R., Keymer, J., Marzullo, T., Rudge, T., & Federici, F. (2017). Low cost and open source multi-fluorescence imaging system for teaching and research in biology and bioengineering. PLOS One, 12(11), e0187163.



Synthetic Biology and the Senses: volunteers wanted for Cambridge Science Festival


Synthetic biology can bring cutting edge biotechnology into everyday experiences through people's senses by harnessing the wonderful variety of colours, scents, tastes and textures produced in nature. We are looking for enthusiastic volunteers and interactive exhibits or colourful posters to illustrate the theme of 'Synthetic Biology and the Senses' at the Cambridge Science Festival Life Science Marquee on Sat 17 March 2018.

'Synthetic Biology and the Senses' is a joint exhibit by OpenPlant and the SynBio SRI and will run 10:00-16:00 on Sat 17 March 2018 on the Downing Site Lawn, with volunteers required before and after for set-up and packing down. 

We are looking for volunteers to help out and talk to visitors as well as proposing activies or exhibits of their own. In 2017 we featured exhibits including:

  • Bioluminescent bacteria
  • Fabrics dyed with synthetic ink from bacteria
  • Micro-organisms expressing plant metabloic pathways to produce rose and patchouli scents
  • Design-a-plant
  • Dave the DNA Robot

 We require volunteers for various times of the day and would be very happy to have 4 people at the exhibit at all times. Two hour slots are available and volunteers can stay as long as they wish. Lunch and Science Festival T-Shirt provided!

Please register via this form or for more information, email synbio@hermes.cam.ac.uk.



Marchantia polymorpha genome published with OpenPlant co-authors

Marchantia polymorpha. Credit: Jim Haseloff

Marchantia polymorpha. Credit: Jim Haseloff

OpenPlant Director Dr Jim Haseloff and past and present Cambridge-based plant synthetic biology researchers including Mihails Delman, Bernardo Pollak and Christian Boehm are all co-authors of a major Cell publication on the Marchantia polymorpha genome. The paper involved contributions from researchers across the world who work on this interesting liverwort.

OpenPlant is establishing Marchantia as a test bed for plant synthetic biology, exploiting its extraordinary experimental properties in order to provide a prototype for other OpenPlant initiatives in higher plants. We will produce systematic collections of experimental protocols, shared DNA parts and Marchantia lines to be distributed via the OpenMTA.


The evolution of land flora transformed the terrestrial environment. Land plants evolved from an ancestral charophycean alga from which they inherited developmental, biochemical, and cell biological attributes. Additional biochemical and physiological adaptations to land, and a life cycle with an alternation between multicellular haploid and diploid generations that facilitated efficient dispersal of desiccation tolerant spores, evolved in the ancestral land plant. We analyzed the genome of the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha, a member of a basal land plant lineage. Relative to charophycean algae, land plant genomes are characterized by genes encoding novel biochemical pathways, new phytohormone signaling pathways (notably auxin), expanded repertoires of signaling pathways, and increased diversity in some transcription factor families. Compared with other sequenced land plants, M. polymorpha exhibits low genetic redundancy in most regulatory pathways, with this portion of its genome resembling that predicted for the ancestral land plant.


Bowman, John L., et al. "Insights into Land Plant Evolution Garnered from the Marchantia polymorpha Genome.Cell 171.2 (2017): 287-304.

Fig 1 from Bowman et al., 2017

Fig 1 from Bowman et al., 2017

[Closes 2 Jan 2018] Postdoc in Synthetic Biology at Newcastle University

Newcastle University are seeking a highly motivated experimental synthetic biology researcher to join Dr Angel Goñi-Moreno’s team at the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex BioSystems (ICOS) group and the Centre for Synthetic Biology and the Bioeconomy of Newcastle University. You will work on the project “SynBio3D: Establishing the engineering fundamentals of three-dimensional synthetic biology”.

This project seeks to integrate spatial constraints such as distances and molecular crowding into the design and construction of gene regulatory circuits. Each gene sequence and each protein may need a specific physical address in the spatial frame of a cell for optimal performance (see http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acssynbio.6b00397 ), a fundamental question to be addressed by the project. This will bring spatial resolution to synthetic biology. Single molecules and DNA components will be tracked inside living cells. This project offers a fantastic playground for a researcher in synthetic biology to conduct highly novel research.

You will have a PhD awarded, or be close to obtaining one, with a significant molecular biology, genetic engineering or related component. You will have skills in the construction and validation of synthetic genetic circuits in bacterial cells. You will have knowledge in genome editing techniques. You will have experience in using fluorescence microscopy and, ideally, the visualization of gene expression constituents in individual cells. Experience in super-resolution microscopy is not essential, but will be positively considered. You will possess strong interests in the application of single-molecule tracking to synthetic biology problems.

You will need to be able to work independently as well as part of a team. Good communication skills are essential – our team includes computer scientists, engineers, biochemists, physicists and molecular biologists. Working under the supervision of senior colleagues, you will develop and initiate new collaborations both internally and externally. You will need to write up research results as well as to present our developments in national and international conferences and meetings. You will contribute to identify potential areas of research within the project and develop leadership skills.

The post is available fixed term for 24 months with start date as soon as possible.
Interviews will take place in January 2018, exact date to be confirmed upon invitation.

More information >>

[Closes 14 Dec 2017] Academies Partnership in Supporting Excellence in Cross-disciplinary research awards (APEX Awards)

In partnership with the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society (‘the Academies’) and with generous support from the Leverhulme Trust, the APEX award (Academies Partnership in Supporting Excellence in Cross-disciplinary research award) scheme offers established independent researchers, with a strong track record in their respective area, an exciting opportunity to pursue genuine interdisciplinary and curiosity-driven research to benefit wider society.

The objectives of this scheme are to:

  • support outstanding interdisciplinary research which is unlikely to be supported through conventional funding programmes 
  • promote collaboration across disciplines, with a particular emphasis on the boundary between science and engineering and the social sciences and humanities
  • support researchers with an outstanding track record, in developing their research in a new direction through collaboration with partners from other disciplines
  • enable outstanding researchers to focus on advancing their innovative research through seed funding

See more information and apply by 14 Dec 2017 >>

[Deadline 15 Dec 2017] Faculty Openings at Northwestern Center for Synthetic Biology

The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University invites applications for a tenure-track position at the rank of Assistant Professor in the Center for Synthetic Biology

Applicants should have a PhD and postdoctoral experience in a field related to synthetic biology and should have research plans that apply synthetic biological approaches to biomedical goals. Ideal candidates should also demonstrate strong communication and leadership skills, as well as an ability to contribute actively to a rapidly growing Center.

Northwestern University has recently started the Center for Synthetic Biology as a university-wide initiative to formalize and grow Synthetic Biology as a research theme. Northwestern University offers superb start-up packages with a collegial and collaborative scientific environment that is rich with core facilities, robust cross- disciplinary graduate training programs, and diverse expertise.

Candidates should have a Ph.D. and/or a M.D. degree and postdoctoral experience. Salary is commensurate with experience and accomplishment.

Deadline: review of received applications will start December 15, 2017, and will continue until the position is filled. 

More information  >>

Apply >>


[Closes 5 Jan 2018] Two post-doctoral fellowships in plant synthetic biology at Colorado State University

The Antunes and Medford Research groups at Colorado State University are looking for two (2) post-doctoral fellows to work on a new plant synthetic biology project to produce useful, living biomaterials

 A Ph.D. in plant molecular biology, cell biology, synthetic biology or a related field is required. Ideal applicants will have experience in molecular biology, plant cell biology and gene cloning. Experience in synthetic biology, design of synthetic genes and gene circuits, and basic mathematical modeling is desired; however, strong candidates without experience in one of these areas may be considered. Experience in moss culture and transformation is valued. Experience with transgenic plants is helpful but not essential.

Well-developed skills in written and verbal communication are desirable. The incumbents are expected to interact with other post-docs, graduate students, lab technicians and undergraduate students in a positive and professional manner.

Duties include applying a variety of molecular biology techniques, gene expression studies, synthetic gene construction, production and analysis of transgenic plants, planning experimental approaches based on research literature, and interpreting results. The successful individuals will be self-motivated and capable of independent thought and research.

More information and to apply >>

Deadline is January 05, 2018.

Report highlights opportunities and risks associated with synthetic biology and bioengineering

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But as a new article out today highlights, these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing 'real-world' problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field. The participants included several OpenPlant researchers and members of the management team.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.  

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems, potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic 'cloud labs' where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases—such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks—and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates, and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Dr Jenny Molloy comments: “One theme that emerged repeatedly was that of inequality of access to the technology and its benefits. The rise of open source, off-patent tools could enable widespread sharing of knowledge within the biological engineering field and increase access to benefits for those in developing countries.”

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research adds: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Christian R. Boehm concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus—whatever the public health benefits—could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research was made possible by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (both at the University of Cambridge), and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford). It was based on a workshop co-funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. 

Wintle, BC, Boehm, CR et al. A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering. eLife; 14 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.30247

Link to original piece on University News

Hear OpenPlant Coordinator Dr Jenny Molloy discuss the work on BBC Radio 4 'Inside Science' 

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Image Credit: Reaching for the Sky
Susanne Nilsson


Open technology and democratisation of synthetic biology features on BBC Radio 4 'Inside Science'

The OpenPlant Cambridge Coordinator Dr Jenny Molloy appeared on BBC Radio 4's 'Inside Science' last week following the publication of a bioengineering horizon scanning exercise co-organised by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and SynBio SRI, (both University of Cambridge) and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford) in Dec 2016.

In an interview with host Adam Rutherford, Jenny discussed the potential democratised future of synthetic biology and the importance of open tools and technologies for engineering biology, such as those generated by OpenPlant and the SRI's activities such as the Biomaker Challenge.

Topics covered included the ways in which synthetic biology is getting cheaper, faster and more distributed with increasing activity within institutions and education but also in community labs like Cambridge's Biomakespace. Changing ownership models in biotechnology was highlighted in the horizon scan as a long term trend that is likely to be a major issue in the next 15 years; it can potentially lead to greater equity in access to technology for public benefit but democratisation also raises questions of responsible governance and regulation. Jenny pointed to the work of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in demonstrating that the DIY biology community are typically very proactive in self-governance and drawing up community codes of ethics and engaging with law enforcement and regulators.

You can download or take a listen to the episode online. The synthetic biology segment starts at 14 min.

More information on the biological engineering horizon scan >>

Wintle, Bonnie C., Christian R. Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C. Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling et al. "A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering.eLife 6 (2017).

[Closes 31 Dec 2017] Applications for the 2018 EUSynBioS Steering Committee are now open !

EUSynBioS is a community for students and postdocs in European synthetic biology. Applications to join their 2018 Steering Committee are now open until 31 December 2017, where you can help facilitate horizontal connections across the synthetic biology community and convene joint events with fellow communities around the globe.

Christian Boehm, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge is the current EUSynBioS Chair and sends this message:

"Dear EUSynBioS community,

As you know, this initiative is run entirely by dedicated students and postdocs keen to make a difference in European synthetic biology. Over the previous year, we have had a fantastic group of people on the Steering Committee: they have amplified our social media presence, represented our voice in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity's discussions on synthetic biology, organised the EUSynBioS Social in Manchester and of course our EUSynBioS Symposium at CNB-CSIC Madrid.
The fourth year of EUSynBioS shall facilitate horizontal connections across the community, further strengthen our interface to industry, and bring about more joint events with fellow communities around the globe.

Do these challenges sound appealing to you ?
Do you have an idea which would really make a difference to the community ?
Do you have what it takes to be a leader in European synthetic biology ?

Then be a part of the 2018 EUSynBioS Steering Committee!
Applications are now open until 31. December 2017. We will be in touch with you soon thereafter, and aim to announce our 2018 Steering Committee in early January."

More information and to apply >>

Technology for development and design for co-creation workshops

The Cambridge Global Challenges Initiative is running the following events for post-graduates and early career researchers in the New Year and a Global Challenges Round Table on 8th December. Book now to secure your place!

Global Challenges Round Table - 8th December

GCI will run Round Tables twice a year to give Cambridge researchers the opportunity to talk about research relating to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The programme of the December 2017 edition, which includes data-driven modelling of airborne diseases, digital design for development aid and innovative bacterial testing, has been shared. You are still very welcome to register to participate in the discussions that will follow the short talks and/or to share research projects to be presented in forthcoming editions of the Round Tables. 

Co-creation for Global Challenges

The following events are part of the focus of Global Challenges Initiative in facilitating the dialogue and co-creation between Cambridge researchers and end-users in the developing world. 

    • Workshop on User-Centred Design in Developing World Contexts – 10th January (application deadline: 15th December). This workshop will introduce the principles of user-centred design and explore the specific challenges and opportunities that commonly arise when using this approach to co-create innovative responses to global challenges. The workshop is open to post-graduates and early career researchers, from different research backgrounds, interested in user-centred design for the benefit of the bottom half of the world’s population. To apply please send a CV (max. 2 pages) and a letter of motivation outlining your interest and how you hope to apply learnings from the workshop to Sophie Mower (sophie.mower@centreforglobalequality.org). 
  • Masterclass in Design Methods for Global Challenges – 11th January. This Masterclass will explore the similarities and differences between particular disciplinary approaches to co-creation with end-users in developing world contexts. One-to-one discussions between expert practitioners from different disciplinary and practitioner communities and established Cambridge researchers in fields within the EPSRC remit will be organized. To register for the event, please complete the online form.

Please note that a Technology for Development Graduate Sandpit – 15th January (application deadline: 11th December), aimed at Graduate students and Early Career Researchers, will take place after these two co-creation-oriented events. Winning teams of the competition sandpit will be awarded bursaries to undertake field trips to develop and test their ideas in real developing world situations. Please apply by completing the application form and submitting a CV (max. 2 pages) to winton@phy.cam.ac.uk.



[Closes Dec 2017] Eligo Bioscience seeking synthetic biologist and related positions

Eligo Bioscience are recruiting a new cohort of amazing scientists and executives to work with us on one of the most exciting synthetic biology-based drug-development platforms. To build the next generation of targeted drugs, they are looking for the most talented microbiologists, genome architects, bioengineers, and DNA hackers to join one of their R&D teams

Eligo Bioscience are recruiting a new cohort of amazing scientists and executives to work with us on one of the most exciting synthetic biology-based drug-development platforms. To build the next generation of targeted drugs, they are looking for the most talented microbiologists, genome architects, bioengineers, and DNA hackers
to join one of their R&D teams


Synthetic Biologist / Geneticist

To be able to translate our research to the clinic, we need to genetically engineer our producer strains to enable the packaging of synthetic circuits into our eligobiotics, and also to optimize the genetic circuits themselves to perform well in in-vivo models.

We are looking for excellent molecular biologists / synthetic biologists excited to tackle the ambitious challenges of diving into phage genetics and engineering bacterial strains.

The ideal candidate is passionate about genetic engineering. You’ll work hand-in-hand with Eligo microbiologists, phage biologists, and animal model scientists to optimize the engineering and validation of eligobiotics


Eligo is building a platform technology to produce an arsenal of eligobiotics to target a wide range of bacterial species. With such a capability, Eligo is poised to lead the new generation of precision microbiome engineering companies. To build our library of delivery vectors based on phage capsids, we need to turn wild-type bacterial strains into engineered producer strains.

We are looking for excellent microbiologists excited to tackle the challenge of engineering and optimizing bacterial strains (aerobic/anaerobic, gram pos/gram neg, etc) to enable the production of species-specific eligobiotics. The ideal candidate is passionate about microbiology and molecular biology.

You’ll work hand-in-hand with Eligo phage biologists, synthetic biologists, and animal models scientists to optimize the engineering and validation of eligobiotics candidates for clinical trials.candidates for clinical trials.

Phage Biologist

To build our library of delivery vectors based on phage capsids, we need not only to discover and characterize a large number of phages with unique capabilities, but also validate their in-vivo activity.

We are looking for phage experts excited to tackle the challenge of both screening environmental samples and bacterial collections to discover unknown phages and characterizing them once isolated. Our whole process is now highly automatized thanks to our robotic pipeline.

The ideal candidate is passionate about phage biology and phage therapy. You’ll work hand-in-hand with Eligo microbiologists, genetic engineers, and animal model scientists to optimize the engineering and validation of eligobiotics candidates for clinical trials.

RebelBio opens call for London life-sciences accelerator - deadline 1 Dec 2017


RebelBio, the world’s first early-stage life-sciences accelerator, is seeking applications from ambitious scientists and entrepreneurs for its 2018 programmes. Science graduates, PhDs, postdocs and academics who feel a strong urge to commercialise their research or who need to advance their existing companies are particularly welcome.

More information from RebelBio 

Our investment  is given with the aim to develop a life-sciences product, commercialise research, or accelerate existing companies that can give the world something it needs.

RebelBio will invest up to $250K*, along with extensive business and scientific mentoring during the three-month period of the program, which take place in London from January 8th to April 8th 2018 & Corks programme from May - July.

During this time, RebelBio will provide laboratory space and supplies designed to allow our founders to move forward technically and business development. The program will culminate with a demo day and is part of an ongoing relationship that applicants will have with the world’s premier early-stage venture-capital fund, SOSV.

This relationship will provide many benefits including access to RebelBio’s vast network of investors, corporates and other like-minded entrepreneurs.

Application Information:


  • The closing date for the London programme is December 1st 2017
  • The closing date for the Cork programme will be announced in early 2018.

Informal inquiries through contacting steven.oconnell@sosv.com.  


*Subject to performance