OpenPlant Forum 2019: Smart Design for the Future of Bio-economy

The last OpenPlant forum took place last month at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. With this year’s focus being on “smart design for the future of bio-economy” the speakers provided insights into current, innovative and exciting research.

Bio-economy refers to all economic activity derived from biological research activity focussed on creating or improving industrial processes. The bio-economy injects a gross value of £153 billion into the British economy, generating over 4 million jobs (Office of National Statistics, 2012).

The bio-economy also presents excellent growth prospects as bioscience and biotechnology have the potential to develop new, more economically and environmentally sustainable solutions to current global challenges.

OpenPlant Biomaker showcases

Professor Jim Haselhoff (University of Cambridge) introducing the Biomaker challenge at the 2019 OpenPlant Forum.

Professor Jim Haselhoff (University of Cambridge) introducing the Biomaker challenge at the 2019 OpenPlant Forum.

The first day of the conference welcomed this round’s OpenPlant Biomaker teams to present their midway reports. Each interdisciplinary team has five months to design and produce either (i) low-cost instruments for biology or (ii) develop a biological resource or outreach project. Having already received an initial funding worth £1,000, teams were also given the opportunity to apply for follow-on funding of £2,000.

This year’s projects ranged from early-stage cancer detection and biophotovoltaic powered soil sensors to outreach in schools and capacity building in Africa. With each of the 25 teams presenting innovative projects, there truly was a wide range of exciting ideas to hear about.  You can read more about individual projects via the Biomaker hackster platform. Goodluck to all the teams who have applied for the follow-on funding!

OpenPlant Forum

The second day of the forum saw the official start to the conference, with Professor Jim Haselhoff introducing the OpenPlant joint initiative which promotes i) interdisciplinary exchange, ii) open technologies and iii) responsible innovation for improvement of sustainable agriculture and conservation.

Professor Susan Rosser (University of Edinburgh) and Professor George Lomonossoff (John Innes Centre) spoke in the first session of the day, presenting under the theme of mammalian and plant engineering, respectively. After a short break, Dr Leopold Parts (Wellcome Sanger Institute), Professor Jun Biao Dai (Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, China) and Professor Jason Chin (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology) gave presentations on their work involving the use of synthetic gene systems.

The last presentations of the day came from Dr Sarah-Jane Dunn (Microsoft Research) on automated reasoning for biological networks, alongside Dr Daphne Ezer (Allan Turing Institute) and Professor Martin Howard (John Innes Centre) who also spoke under the topic of modelling and machine learning for biological systems.

Synbio start-ups panel - From left to right: Tim Brears (Evonetix), Jim Ajioka (Colorifix), Eyal Maori (Tropic Biosciences), Rob Field (Iceni Diagnostics), and Eugenio Butelli (Persephone Bio).

Synbio start-ups panel - From left to right: Tim Brears (Evonetix), Jim Ajioka (Colorifix), Eyal Maori (Tropic Biosciences), Rob Field (Iceni Diagnostics), and Eugenio Butelli (Persephone Bio).

The day ended with a panel with representatives from the synbio start-ups Colorifix, Tropic Biosciences, Iceni Diagnostics, Persephone Bio and Evonetix, who had an interesting discussion with the audience about building and running a synthetic biology start-up in the present-day bioeconomy.

The final day of the forum focussed on the topics of novel approaches and technologies, and the reprogramming multicellular systems; we welcomed talks from the likes of Benedict Diederich and René Richter from the Bio-Nanoimaging group in the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (Germany) on an open-source optical toolbox that can make cutting edge imaging techniques affordable and available, Dr Stephanie Mack (cancer research UK) and Professor Wendy Harwood (John Innes Centre) who spoke about genome editing techniques in mammalian and plant systems respectively, and Dr Somenath Bakshi (University of Cambridge) who informed us on his research on understanding and engineering biological networks.

With Marchantia as a model system being a hot topic for the second half of the day, Professor Mario Arteaga-Vazquez (University of Veracruz, Mexico) spoke of dicer-mediated reprogramming of cell fate specification in this system, followed by talks of  Dr Susana Sauret-Gueto and Dr Eftychis Frangedakis (University of Cambridge) who updated us on the advances in the Marchantia research in the Haseloff Lab.

The final evening of the OpenPlant Forum 2019

The final evening of the OpenPlant Forum 2019

Throughout the day we were updated on the recent research activities in the OpenPlant centre by exciting talks by post-doc and PhD students from various different research groups. A wide range of topics were covered, including: vaccine development, insect pheromone production, plant metabolite biosynthesis, transient expression systems, cell wall engineering, plant immune responses, and transcriptional regulation in cyanobacteria.

With the final talk of the conference delivered by Roger Castells-Graells (John Innes Centre) on virus maturation, the last OpenPlant conference came to an end. We would like to thank all those who attended as well as those who made the conference possible and worked diligently behind the scenes to make such an exciting conference happen.