Many early efforts of synthetic biology have focussed on the engineering of microbes, especially for the growing biotech industry. In contrast to single cell microbes, multi-cellular organisms such as plants present a higher level complexity, take longer to engineer, and the regulatory system can be a tough and time consuming to navigate – but there are huge opportunities for delivering social, environmental and economic benefits through efforts to reprogramme plants and agriculture. They come with their own distinct set of ethical, legal, social and economic questions. The above were topics central to discussions at the 2016 OpenPlant Forum. Over one hundred people from various disciplines assembled to hear about some of the recent advances in crop and feedstock engineering, discover the latest tools to support innovation in this field, and to reflect on and discuss the ethical, legal, social, and economic questions.
Events kicked off at the John Innes Conference Centre, Norwich, with a networking evening and industry showcase, including two exciting new local developments: Martin Stocks (Plant BioScience Ltd) talked about Leaf Systems®, a translational facility being built to scale up protein and chemical production in plants; and Tony West gave a preview of the new DNA Foundry at the Earlham Institute, which has since been officially launched.
The first full day of the Forum opened with a double bill of keynotes from Allan Green (CSIRO) and Jonathan Napier (Rothamsted) talking about their impressive efforts engineering oilseed crops. It continued with a case study of AB Sugar’s Wissington sugarbeet processing site, providing an inspiring processing model for maximising production from a feedstock and it’s byproducts. This was followed by a cross-discipline exploration of some recent advances and future opportunities for reprogramming agriculture. In the final session of the day, Spencer Adler (Bioeconomy Capital) gave an investors perspective, followed by a lively debate on the ethical, legal, social and economic considerations of developments in this area. Discussions continued into the night at the conference dinner.
Day two grounded the discussions back in the technical, with a focus on tools to support synthetic biology, especially in plants. The day started with Tom Knight opening the curtains to an exhilarating view of Ginkgo Bioworks and some of their latest developments. Moving back to plant chassis, advances establishing the liverwort Marchantia as a simple plant chassis were showcased alongside work developing tools and methods for other plant chassis. The final session of the event focussed on tools to enable innovation through sharing of knowledge, data and materials – a key focus of the OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre.
Steven Burgess and Cindy Chan have published a detailed write-up of the OpenPlant Forum on the PLOS Synbio Community blog: Seven Developments in SynBio: Science, Patents and Ethics | OpenPlant Forum 2016