OpenPlant Forum 2015: blog by Dr Colette Matthewman

A number of events took place in Cambridge as part of Cambridge Open Technology Week. At the heart of the activities was the OpenPlant Forum a two-day meeting bringing together experts from a range of sectors to discuss developing open technologies for plant synthetic biology.

What was remarkable about the Forum was the strikingly varied and multi-disciplinary agenda covering intellectual property, policy and regulation, responsible research and innovation and open science as well as an excellent scientific programme.

The first day of the Forum focussed on foundational technologies that facilitate exchange and freedom to operate in research environments. The second day concentrated on application of these technologies to trait engineering, and open source routes to innovation and industry.

In between talks, Dr Jenni Rant showcased outputs from Science Art Writing (SAW) Trust synthetic biology public engagement workshops, including a Marchantia themed game.

Kicking off events, Tom Knight, a computer engineer now widely considered the ‘father of synthetic biology’, talked about how synthetic biology aims to make an engineering discipline of biology. He commented that “biologists tend to like complexity, while engineers like it simple”.

Dr Nicola Patron described her recent efforts with OpenPlant and the international community, to bring together a common standard for the assembly of plant DNA parts. Many of the scientific talks described DNA parts collections for gene regulation or for producing high value chemicals in plants.

Professor Anne Osbourn highlighted the value of genetic and chemical diversity in plants, explaining for example that plant P450 enzymes can achieve things that test-tube chemistry can’t. Further examples were seen in talks by Dr Yang Zhang and Dr Stephanie Brown who are exploiting this plant natural diversity for production of heath promoting and anti-cancer compounds in tomato and yeast.

Openness was a running theme across the two days with social scientist Dr Jane Calvert emphasizing how open biology, open innovation and opening up are all critical to the future of synthetic biology. Professor Chas Bountra talked about his ground-breaking work in novel drug discovery, explaining that drug discovery is too expensive, risky and slow, and open science and pooling of resources can speed up research and share the risks. Dr Linda Kahl outlined the need for new legal tools to improve freedom to operate for researchers in both academia and industry, and her work to create an Open Material Transfer Agreement in collaboration with OpenPlant.

Next year the OpenPlant Forum comes to the Norwich Research Park, from 25 – 27 July 2016.

OpenPlant is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Source: OpenPlant Forum 2015: blog by Dr Colette Matthewman