Synthetic Biology Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

Tag Archives: Synthetic Biology

29 Jan

SynBio LEAP – building the future

SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology
SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology

SynBio LEAP: building the future of synthetic biology

I have been selected as one of 2015’s Synthetic Biology LEAP Fellows!

LEAP is designed to develop leaders from the ranks of communicators, scientists, ethicists, industry and do-it-yourselfers invested in the promise, potential, and impact of synthetic biology. I’m pleased to see folks I know as fellow LEAP Fellows—people like Mike Koeris from Sample 6, who is focusing on how to make the future safer, Camille Delebeque from SynBio Consulting, who thinks deeply about complicated questions of policy and science, and Edward Perello who is working to integrate the computer and the wetlab.

I’m also excited to meet those synthetic biology people that I haven’t yet connected with. Scientists like Nicola Patron for example, who in addition to her research has made a brilliant kit for plant transformation via Addgene. Scientist Lalitha Sundaram, who has a passion for biosensors and how it can impact the most poorly served communities. Using biotechnology to improve life across the globe is a passion she shares with Bill Gates, who focuses on agricultural biotechnology in his latest letter.

Crop Life Graphic

The world in plants. Click to visit Crop Life’s Biotech Plant Development page for an exceptionally well done description of plant biotechnology

Another Fellow, Cameron Keys, has spent years focusing on the impact of collaboration between social and natural scientists. I’m fascinated to hear what he’s learned about the way this partnership both shapes the actual scientific experiments and the way we share them. After the January NAS interface conference on communicating complex technologies like GMOs, I think we need as much of this collaboration as we can get.

thefuture Meet all the 2015 SynBio LEAP fellows! They’ve all got amazing stories.

While I can’t list everyone here, I encourage you to take to learn more about the 2015 SynBio LEAP Fellows. The participants are more than just our jobs or our research. We are interested in the impact of synthetic biology, both as a tool that can begin to be of use now, and more importantly, a tool that can allow us to develop a society that is quite literally sustainable – one where we grow the things we need for the quality of life we want. LEAP fellows are working towards a world where that is possible, and that means both building scientific tools and building a strong ethical foundation for the future.

So what is my vision? I see a beautiful future. Biotechnology is more than a lofty intellectual concept, it is more than a grand plan for some distant future, and it is certainly not limited to large companies with massive corporate empires. Biotechnology can be beautiful. I’m really pleased to be able to bring my vision to LEAP next week & work on building a more beautiful future with these incredible people!

23 Jan

Bioengineering Dragons, Part II – Design

In Part I we talked about the rationale for bioengineering a dragon.

After a healthy and instructive discussion about your dragon needs, it turns out that you mainly want one because it’s cool (and maybe you want to impress your friends a little). Louboutin, Ferrari, Cartier, they are all products that exist primarily to meet this need. In this case, the product is a living creature and I think it is important to reiterate that we must have an ongoing and continuous conversation about the ethics involved.

It also turns out you are ludicrously wealthy and able to fund this project in perpetuity because that’s approximately how long it’s going to take to make you a dragon.

Cuddly doesn’t always mean fluffy. A 1912 drawing of a lap dragon by R. Leinweber


Bioengineering multicellular organisms is expensive. It’s time consuming. It can be a huge investment of resources and people, and very often the way you thought biology worked is only the most surface layer of function, adding years on to your research timeline. Our color-changing flowers, for example, were designed on a solid foundation of basic research spanning 30 years, a known pathway, and team of petunia color experts, and a lot of that planning involved ways to overcome known unknowns. We needed a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve before we could develop a practical technical plan to accomplish it.

So, what do you want your dragon to look like?

  • Does the dragon need wings? Scales? Teeth?
  • Does it have to breathe fire?
  • Does the dragon need four legs or can it get by with two?
  • How big should the dragon be?

There is an exceptional flash game by Wyndbain where you can build your dragon with wings, claws, and 8 pages (!) of horn styles. However it has a terrible ad that plays when I embed it, so you’ll have to click here to use it.

Dragons are mythical creatures so we have a pretty blank slate. We can focus on the features we need to meet our goals — We don’t need to achieve full Game of Thrones functionality in the first iteration. You’re not Daenerys. If you had a full grown firebreathing dragon, at some point it would just set fire to your house and eat the neighbor kid.

Let’s starting by engineering something that looks like a dragon – something small, something that smells of sulfur once in a while. I’m thinking that the primary requirements are wings and a scaled body. Jointed wings – even if they can’t be used to fly – and a body covered in scales are pretty unmistakeable as a dragon hallmark. Everything else can be negotiated.

Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

14 Jan

How to make a dragon – a step by step bioengineering guide

Revolution Bio is at the top of the search results for the terms ‘crazy bioengineering dragon idea.’ While we are making color-changing flowers, not dragons, I’m pretty excited that people looking for incredible advances in biotechnology find us on the front page. So I’m going to take a cue from XKCD’s “What If” blag and answer the question “What would it take to engineer a dragon?”

Trogdor the Burninator - Homestar Runner“Feel free to follow along with my simple step-by-step instruction.” – Strongbad, Homestar Runner

Part 1 – Should we bioengineer a dragon?

Before starting in on our dragon, we should carefully consider whether or not this project has a function beyond “Well that’s cool.” Modifying a living creature in any way, shape, or form has ethical implications – conventional breeding included. Animals have been domesticated and bred for millenia, and now broiler chickens have such disproportionate amounts of white meat that they can’t stand up . Soldiers and police rely on German Shepherds, but these dogs often have terrible hip problems as a result of their pedigree. There needs to be a compelling and comprehensive answer as to why we should engineer an organism.

Our reason for engineering a dragon doesn’t have to be as direct as “I need to regain the Iron Throne”, though — maybe there are significant technical advances that could be made by starting this project, like better understanding the developmental processes that result in wings and scales and fire-breathing. Maybe this is an engaging way to get the public intrigued in science, technology and the way the two are rapidly evolving. Maybe there are a LOT of consumers that want a pet dragon, or lap giraffes, or housecats that look like lions and cheetahs, and we just didn’t know it until someone asked the question. (Is this you? Support consumer biotechnology and sign up for our mailing list here).

A lap giraffe - luxury consumer biotechnology
Admit it, you signed up for the waiting list.

Let’s take a close look at why we need a dragon, and then determine whether bioengineering is the best possible solution to those needs.

In some cases, there may be an existing solution that could take the place of bioengineering a dragon. Are you looking for an animal companion that will keep down your goat population? Why not a golden eagle instead? Maybe you want a trusty steed that you can rely on in dangerous situations. Horses might be a little tame for your taste, but a war zebra or an elephant might do just as well.

blog post trogdor part 1 dragon v 747
Left: Airplane, Right: Dragon

It’s also unlikely that bioengineering will be the quick and inexpensive way to accomplish your goal. If your primary goal is personal flight transportation, we have some incredible aeronautical engineering marvels out there in the shape of airplanes and helicopters, and human powered gliders also exist. At today’s level of technology, there is no possible way that making this dragon will be in any way cheaper or faster than mechanical flight. An animal that a human can ride through the air is a tall order.

Right now “because they’re cool” is probably still at the top of your list of reasons to bioengineer a dragon. The cool factor drives a lot of product development in everything from fashion to electronics. Dragons, the imaginary ones that don’t exist, are pretty amazing — but to get from zero to dragon, you are going to have to do a lot of basic research and testing. And when we’re talking about engineering a living creature and all its complexities, this can yield ugly, not-quite-dragon, results.

So, is it worth it? Should we bioengineer a dragon? Share your thoughts below!

Part II – Design

20 May

Revolution on Regulation

NOTE: This is a behind the scenes look at the discussions in RevBio about the importance of regulatory compliance. There will be additional installments to this conversation. We are not doing any biological work at this time.

The Problem:

Revolution Bioengineering was accepted into a biotech business accelerator to create color changing flowers, or to at least demonstrate the technology that will bring that about. The accelerator program only lasts three months, which is a pretty short timeframe to get biological science done. We are now beginning our third week and we have a problem: we do not have regulatory approval to move forward .

A researcher must get their individual project approved by the Irish EPA. This requires detailing the specifics of the genes used and the organism to be transformed, i.e., putting yeast genes into bacteria to study a particular metabolic pathway. Even simple transformations of an empty pUC vector into a DH5a are not permitted unless approval is sought beforehand . The Irish EPA website states that the timeline for approval is 45 days, but the UCC biosafety chair told us that the process is rarely that long. Two or three weeks is typical for a thorough review and approval. This approval was filed last week.

To summarize our current situation: We have made significant sacrifices in our lives to be in Cork, Ireland for the summer. We have a lab space that suitable for everything we want to do, and we have all the genes and the plasmids and the enzymes and the materials we need to start working. However, we have no regulatory approval.

The Options:

1. Wait around until EPA approval comes through before starting science work.

There is a lot of outreach and networking we can do in the next 2 to 3 weeks instead of biology. We can prepare videos and materials for our website to “build our profile” and generate interest in the project. This keeps us in line with the regulations, but prevents us from accomplishing our ambitious scientific goals.

2. Start doing work at UCC and not tell anybody.

We are in a foreign country and in this option we would be knowingly breaking their laws concerning GMOs. It’s unlikely to be reported to the EPA, per conversations with faculty and staff, and by choosing this we would be able to move our science project forward.

3. Start doing work at UCC and blog about it.

We started our company with the ambition to be very open about everything we do to demystify the scientific process and plant biotechnology in particular. Choosing this option would be keeping in line with our values, would allow us to get work done, but would be exposing ourselves, our accelerator program, and UCC to trouble.

4. Move our scientific operations to another country and clone there until UCC approval comes through.

Other countries don’t require individual project approval to do simple molecular cloning. We could move our operations there and do work until we get approval from Ireland, then move back to Ireland to do the plant work. This is the most expensive option.

The Discussion:

Keira: Regulations are important to retain the public trust – they should be respected. No biological work until regulatory approval is granted.

Let me start by saying that we are experts in our field. We understand the risks, how to mitigate them, and are confident in the safety of both our approach and our end product. We know this project inside and out.

However, we understand that GMOs are a complicated topic with some frightening associations for the public. Having an open scientific process and sharing detailed descriptions of the science behind the plant isn’t enough to unseat the skepticism and fear that has overwhelmed public debate on GMOs. Instead, those of us working in this field have an obligation take on these projects within an eye towards rebuilding the public’s trust in science and scientists.

One simple, easy way to do that is to adhere to the established regulatory framework. Working on this technology without the official regulatory approval will taint our project with the same arrogance people despise in larger companies like Monsanto. Our goal is to engage the public, not alienate them, and I believe regulatory compliance is essential to establishing trust with the public.

This is not to say that the regulations cannot be changed. But that effort should be conducted through the proper political forum with public input and widespread discussion on the merits and safety of synthetic biology. It is less convenient to do this – the conversations will be frustrating and circular, the work will take longer. But it restores integrity to a process that many have given up on as controlled by special interests.

I will add to this that it’s not only our project we need to worry about. There is a growing DIYbio community in Ireland who has taken the time to follow the rules. We would be undermining not only our own position as a company dedicated to open science and public engagement, but the efforts of the DIYbio community as a whole, and quite possibly the larger field of synthetic biology.

We have already had to adjust our experimental plan due to delays in shipping and synthesis. Waiting at least another three weeks for regulatory approval will set us back further, but it is the right thing to do. Alternatively, we can shift operations to Germany until we have regulatory approval. In this scenario we can both get the science started and maintain our integrity – the work we plan to do is allowed under German regulation, and we can import DNA to Ireland without restriction. While neither option is ideal, they both make clear that we are committed to furthering our business in a responsible way.

Nikolai: If we don’t start working now, there are no ethics to fret over because there will be no business

Keira and I are at an accelerator program that takes idea-stage projects and gives them time and money to develop a prototype which they can then pitch to investors. We have made significant life sacrifices to get to Ireland to take advantage of this opportunity, and we are fully committed to it. Without this accelerator, all we have is an idea.

Everything we are doing is safe, and the project falls well within the Irish EPA guidelines of biosafety level 1 work. Our application will be approved once the EPA gets around to sitting on the documents for a sufficiently bureaucratic amount of time. We just have to wait for that to happen.

Right now if we are not doing science, we are wasting our time. We are here to start a business, and if we have to do it by bending the rules, we need to do that. Following the rules to the letter is fine, but with such a short timeframe and ambitious scientific goals, we can’t afford to wait around to do work. If we don’t start doing science now, at the end of this accelerator we will still be at the idea stage and have nothing to show for it except some more blogs.

Since we have already wasted so much time moving to Ireland and getting equipped in a laboratory starting from scratch, I think temporarily moving our operations to a different country will be a further waste of time. Even if we show up in a fully functional lab, there will be additional time spent re-setting up, re-ordering things, re-acquainting ourselves with how things are done at the new facility and where everything is, not to mention time wasted for things outside the realm of science like getting another apartment.

The only two options I see available to us is to start working and blog about it as we had promised ourselves we would do (and worry about the consequences later, if there even are any), or start working and not blog about it and sacrifice our corporate principles from the very beginning in order to even have a corporation.

The EPA approval will come through at some point. They don’t have a deadline to approve our work. We do have a deadline to get work done. We need to come through with some scientific results, or our whole summer is fantastic waste of time and money.