Europe gets a head start
in synthetic biology


Working at the interface between the life sciences and engineering, synthetic biology is an exciting new discipline which has potential applications in fields as diverse as medicine, energy and the chemical industry.

Synthetic biologists draw on engineering principles to create novel biological systems with functions that are not found in nature. For example, in the future, synthetic biology might provide us with biological tools which could detect damage in our blood vessels and repair them, or microorganisms designed to eliminate toxic waste from contaminated soil.

Although we are still some way from achieving these goals, there is growing awareness that synthetic biology has the potential to develop tools which will be of great social, environmental and economic importance. With this in mind, it is vital that Europe makes sure it takes a leading role in shaping this important new research field, and that is where the SYNBIOCOMM (‘Towards a European Synthetic Biology Community’) project comes in.


Linking up Europe’s synthetic biologists

Europe’s synthetic biology community is still rather small and scattered across different countries and different disciplines, such as molecular biology, industrial biotechnology, electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering, computer science and physics. The goals of the SYNBIOCOMM project were to bring together this diverse group of experts into a single, vibrant, synthetic biology research community, and ensure the future of synthetic biology in Europe by encouraging the next generation of scientists to get involved in this new interdisciplinary research area.

The project partners approached this challenge via two main activities: by sponsoring the participation of teams of European students in an international synthetic biology competition (iGEM), and by hosting a major conference on synthetic biology.

Sowing the seeds

The International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition is an annual event held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, US. It challenges teams of students to design their own biological systems and operate them inside living cells. The event is rapidly becoming a key event in the synthetic biology calendar: in 2007, over 700 students from 54 institutions in 19 countries, including 5 EU Member States, got involved.

One of the driving forces behind the increase in participation by European teams is the SYNBIOCOMM project. Many European synthetic biologists quickly saw iGEM as an excellent tool to bring biology and engineering students together in common research projects.

In early summer, each team undergoes an intensive training period. The students then decide on the biological design they want to create and how to go about it. The teams are provided with access to a library of ‘biobricks’, small DNA sequences whose biological functions are known and which the students can use to turn their ideas into reality.

The teams present their finished products at the annual iGEM Jamboree, which is held at the MIT in late autumn. SYNBIOCOMM funded the iGEM participation costs of European teams to the tune of EUR 10 000, which is equivalent to roughly half the team’s total costs. The teams raised the rest of the funds from other sources.

Thanks to SYNBIOCOMM’s support, 18 European teams took part in iGEM in 2006 and 2007. The teams sponsored by SYNBIOCOMM were highly successful; in 2006, the team from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia scooped the top prize for designing cells which are able to stabilise the body’s response to infections. And they were not the only Europeans on the podium!

The Ljubljana team worked on a condition called sepsis, which occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive and ultimately blocks the flow of blood to the organs. Sepsis is fatal in a third of cases. The Slovenians created a system which succeeded in stopping the immune response from going into overdrive while ensuring it was still able to respond to the infection.

What made the Ljubljana entry particularly remarkable was the fact that they worked with mammalian cells, which are more complicated than bacterial cells. Their project required ‘biobricks’ not found in the library provided for participants, and so they had to create them themselves.

Meanwhile, Imperial College London came second for their design of a device which can detect infections in urinary catheters in hospitals. In 2007, European teams won prizes for Best Medical Project (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Best Environmental Project (Glasgow, the UK) Best Foundational Technology (Paris, France) and Best Presentation (ETH Zurich, Switzerland), among other things.

Spreading the word in Europe

Another of the project’s main goals was to host the first major synthetic biology conference in Europe. The Synthetic Biology 3.0 conference was held in the Swiss city of Zurich in June 2007. The 350 participants included academics from fields as diverse as molecular biology, industrial biotechnology and chemical and electrical engineering, as well as students and representatives of industry and the media.

‘Our conference was very well received. It was oversubscribed, and attracted an enthusiastic group of people,’ explained Project Coordinator Sven Panke of ETH Zurich. ‘Synthetic biology is a new research topic, and we were successful in spreading the word among students and scientists both.’

In fact, the conference attracted so much financial backing that the SYNBIOCOMM partners were able to increase the project’s support for the student teams travelling to Boston for iGEM.

Reaping the harvest

SYNBIOCOMM has helped to create a single European synthetic biology community which is a key player internationally in this exciting new field of research. The project partners now hope to continue supporting Europe’s fledgling synthetic biologists, so that as the discipline expands, Europe will be at the forefront of the latest developments.