NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical & Technological Innovation (NUS SynCTI) is NUS’ focal research programme for synthetic biology, and has been one of the key drivers of the founding of the Global BioFoundry Alliance (GBA). The GBA was formally launched at Kobe University in Japan on 9 May 2019 and brings together 16 institutions across four continents. With keen commitment from leading biological foundries (BioFoundries) from the UK, US, Australia, Japan, China, Denmark, Canada and Singapore, the GBA aims to promote collaboration between BioFoundries across the world.
Just like in a traditional foundry, where metals are manipulated to achieve a certain result, a BioFoundry is an integrated facility that can design, assemble, and investigate genetic constructs often at large scale. The benefits of this global union of BioFoundries were recently outlined in a Nature Communications article coauthored by three members from NUS SynCTI. Ultimately, the goal of the GBA is to advance synthetic biology research and drive development towards a bio-based economy (bioeconomy).
This ‘bioeconomy’ is defined by the European Commission as, "the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy”. As such, a bioeconomy would have several economic and environmental advantages.
GBA to promote greener biomanufacturing worldwide
Associate Professor Matthew Chang, Director of NUS SynCTI, is optimistic about the potential technological benefits of the GBA. He stated that by 2025, the emerging field of synthetic biology could make up to 22 per cent of the global trillion-dollar agricultural, chemical and health market. “The economic impact on various sectors such as agricultural, healthcare, biofuels and chemicals could reach between US$700 billion and US$6 trillion per year,” he said.
He claimed that the alliance is a concerted effort to build a strong, global bio-based economy and the synergistic collaboration among BioFoundries will advance research in biomanufacturing that is safe, clean and green.
“There is an urgent need to develop the bioeconomy for the future to mitigate humans’ dire environmental impact and bolster sustainable living in terms of food production and manufacturing,” he remarked. In this way, he is hoping the GBA can spearhead the development of greener biomanufacturing, potentially reducing the reliance on finite natural resources.
The advantages for Singapore
Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan, Deputy Director and Principal Investigator at NUS SynCTI, who was also in Japan for the launch, believes that cofounding the GBA is strategic for Singapore. He feels that the GBA not only accelerates the bioeconomy, but also helps scientists around the world share best practices in biomanufacturing.
This brings benefits to NUS SynCTI in terms of collaboration and communication among international BioFoundries, said Assoc Prof Yew. “The GBA enables us to learn from mature establishments and contribute to building new capabilities. This opportunity has also enhanced NUS BioFoundry’s visibility, impact and continuance among world’s leading institutions,” he explained.
These new synthetic biology capabilities could have a positive economic impact for Singapore as advanced manufacturing could reduce costs of commodities such as flavours, bio-based health foods, efficient biofuels, and more. Locally, such sophisticated BioFoundries would also help train skilled manpower in the mastery of robotic technology.
Automation in BioFoundries
BioFoundries house state-of-the-art robotic machines to conduct biological engineering at a large scale. The main aim is to enhance and accelerate academic and translational research in engineering and synthetic biology using automation and high-throughput equipment based on Iterative Design-Build-Test-Learn. This comes with computer-aided design software for new workflows.
Associate Professor Poh Chueh Loo, Principal Investigator at NUS SynCTI, who is leading the development of NUS BioFoundry and was part of Singapore’s delegation in Japan, clarified, “Consider a simple example of LEGO blocks which can be compared to genetic parts in synthetic biology context. Just as LEGOs fit into various arrangements to build different structures, genetic parts can be assembled into a variety of circuits in organisms, to say, detect toxins, or produce valuable chemicals like flavours.”
However, putting various circuits in organisms and testing them means generating many engineered organisms that must be screened for the new ability to produce the desired products. “Doing this manually in a laboratory takes an unimaginable amount of time and here is where the BioFoundry comes to the rescue; BioFoundries house robotics and automation machines, which makes generating hundreds of genetic circuits and screening for functional organisms faster, more efficient and error-free,” he said.
Cohesive in their vision to promote collaboration, open standards and best practices, members of the GBA will collaborate to equip researchers around the globe with innovative tools to capitalise on fundamental research and pilot translational science towards development of new bio-based industries.