Synberc (Synthetic Biology Research Center)
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Synberc was a multi-university research center established in 2006 and funded for ten years with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lay the foundation for synthetic biology. During its 10 years of NSF support, Synberc made important early contributions to the development of the field of synthetic biology through research from members’ labs, interactions between academic and industry members, and broad-impact activities to support socially responsible innovation. At the conclusion of Synberc’s grant period, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) was founded. Many of the key activities established by Synberc have been adopted, improved, and continued by EBRC. EBRC is continuing to develop additional new activities and programs to support and sustain the impact of research, products, discoveries, and ideas from the synthetic biology community.
Synberc’s mission was threefold:
- develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
- train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in synthetic biology; and
- engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of synthetic biology.
Just as electrical engineers have made it possible to assemble computers from standardized parts (hard drives, memory cards, motherboards, and so on), Synberc envisioned a day when biological engineers systematically assembled biological components such as sensors, signals, pathways, and logic gates to build bio-based systems that solve real-world problems in health, energy, and the environment.
Synberc researchers applied engineering principles to biology to develop tools to improve how fast — and how well — synthetic biologists could go through the design-test-build cycle. These included smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. Synberc also pursued the discovery of applications that would lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than former plant-derived treatment.
In 2006, motivated by the possibility that microbes could be systematically engineered to produce virtually any product from sugar, a group of leading synthetic biologists successfully proposed Synberc to the National Science Foundation. Synberc was a ten-year multi-institutional research project working to lay the foundations for the field of synthetic biology which was emerging at the time. Synberc grew a trusted network of academic researchers working on foundational tools and technologies with a research program that created the enabling tools and technologies that have given rise to many bio-based applications. Synberc’s integrated Policy & Practices group developed and promoted leading examples of responsible synthetic biology research and application in four areas: biosafety and biosecurity; environmental applications and regulation; ownership, sharing and innovation; and community and leadership development. Synberc also built a robust industry partnership that includes nearly 50 small and large companies, non-profits, and industry associations.
With its federal funding ending in 2016, Synberc called upon the federal government to work with academic and industrial researchers to launch a national initiative in engineering biology and thus the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) was launched to sustain and coordinate federal investments, coordinate regulatory and safety policies, catalyze public-private partnerships, and encourage education programs to create leaders in biotechnology practice and policy.
Synberc’s research programs focused on projects that developed the foundational understanding and technologies needed to routinely build large numbers of useful biological systems from standard interchangeable parts. Synberc also developed a set of collaborative, cross-cutting testbed projects that drove the development of tools and technologies, and provided proof of principle in building complex applications for real-world problems.
Synberc’s research program focused on the development of:
PARTS – The most basic unit in the design of synthetic biological systems
DEVICES – Engineered genetic objects that are designed to function under specified conditions, and that can be created by combining parts
CHASSIS – Host cells that are designed to run a genetic program.
PRACTICES – Policies, procedures and ways of thinking about ethical, legal and social issues, as well as safety and security.
TESTBEDS – Synberc developed several testbeds to test the integration of Parts, Devices, Chassis and Practices into an integrated application to solve a particular societal challenge. These testbeds ranged from tumor-destroying bacteria to chemical-producing microbes to nitrogen-fixing plants. Many of these testbeds were inspired by industry needs.
Synberc’s specific goals were to:
- Develop a conceptual framework for designing small biological components, or parts, that could be assembled into devices to perform a well-characterized function under specified conditions;
- Develop chassis (assembly substrate and power supply) to host the engineered devices and to assemble several devices as “systems” that accomplish a larger objective or goal ;
- Develop a set of standards for the interactions of the parts and devices so that devices can be built more readily and reproducibly (enabling composition);
- Offer the parts, devices, and chassis as open source to other researchers and companies; and
- Link these engineering goals within a comprehensive practices framework.
In addition to the thrusts and testbeds highlighted above, Synberc developed a core of cross-cutting research that provided foundational tools and technologies to advance synthetic biology internally and externally. These projects include automated DNA construction, models and design, safety and security, and registries and repositories.
Synberc facilitated the development of a number of research resources for the synthetic biology community. These resources can be accessed on the EBRC Resources page.