Who will lead synthetic biology in the future and where will they lead it? This is the question that opened the 7th International Yeast 2.0 Synthetic Genomes Conference and in many ways was the theme that helped to tie together the three days in Sydney.
The conference started not with a key note address but with the poster presentation, giving young researchers a chance to be front and centre in talking about their work. After all, the PhD students and postdocs in the room would be the ones guiding the field as it confronts the big questions of the 21st century.
The focus on the future continued on with how to build a bioeconomy. Synthetic biology is not purely focused on company spin-offs or industrial strategy but sees the need to build an economy that is circular and carbon neutral. Long-term survival of advanced human societies depends on it.
How was synthetic biology pushing the limits of the possible? What risks did this entail? This what the second day focused on. One of the things I really appreciate and value about the synthetic biology community is its engagement with the social, political and ethical aspects of the work being done. The community casts a self-critical eye on itself and doesn’t avoid asking questions about how this might affect the world and – in doing so – asking how not only to communicate to the public but how to engage the public for their consent.
Finally, the last day looked to the far horizon, where new possibilities open up including synthetic genomes. Synthetic biology, by reshaping and redesigning living systems, blurs the definitions we have grown comfortable with.
Comfort being something in short supply recently. It was during the conference that the announcement of CRISPR-edited human babies was made in Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly this dominated several conversations and discussions both in and outside the conference hall. I was on my phone during a coffee break catching up on the news and thought to myself that it felt like the world had shifted in some fundamental way. The Age of Biology had truly arrived.
So more than ever it’s important we look towards the future and grapple with the scientific, technical, moral, ethical, social, cultural and legal ramifications of the work being done. The community has built engagement with these concerns into its DNA and it is essential that they are part of the core training of the next generation of synthetic biologists. It is reassuring that as part of my tour around Australia – and everywhere I have been in the synthetic biology world – these matters are given serious thought and consideration.
After all, to steal a quote from Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”