Unlocking the full potential of Microbial Synthetic Biology: an engineering discipline coming of age
Background. Microbial Synthetic Biology (MSB) is an emergent interdisciplinary area combining disciplines such as microbiology,
biotechnology, genetic engineering, molecular biology, molecular engineering, systems biology, protein engineering, membrane
science, biophysics and computer engineering. MSB applies these disciplines to engineer biological systems and microorganisms in
view of improving industrial, environmental, diagnostic and therapeutic applications or biological research. Traditionally two
different approaches are riving MSB: a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach. In the former approach metabolic and
genetic engineering techniques are applied to extensively rewire the cell metabolism, while the latter approach creates new
biological systems in vitro by bringing together 'non-living' biomolecular components. Although recent progress in SB, such as the
falling cost of reading and writing synthetic DNA, improved methods for DNA assembly and advances in dynamic pathway control,
empowers bioengineers to explore SB for the engineering of parts, or the whole, of microorganisms, MSB is yet only modestly or not
efficiently exploited. To truly unlock the full potential of MSB, efforts should be undertaken to bridge the divide between these
approaches and to synergistically combine both approaches enabling MSB to become a mature discipline with novel tools and
platforms making way for applications and research that were not possible hitherto.
Scientific targets. The initiative that we launch here will tackle this issue by establishing an integrative, inter-, multi- and
transdisciplinary research network with a strong momentum for a sustained engagement beyond the lifetime of the project by
connecting the relevant expertise and stakeholders to chart the different approaches, methods and technologies in MSB and to
realize its full potential. This will be materialized through the establishment of a consortium that regularly meets, acts as consortium
in project applications, shares post-docs and PhD/master students, organize joined seminars, workshops, etc.
Consolidatory, the objectives of this initiative can be summarized by:
§ Create a bridging link between the different groups in Flanders active in MSB and bringing in complementary expertise from
international research groups to create an integrative, multidisciplinary and innovative research pipeline and thereby
maximally valorize MSB activities in Belgium.
§ Complement current (inter)national initiatives which only touch one or maximum a few aspects in MSB such as the Hercules
grant which focus on automatization in molecular biology and screening of biological parts (FWO I011118N) or the BioRoBooST
consortium on “tandardization in synthetic biology”(H2020 GA 820699), by truly bringing together both approaches fostering
their synergistic effect to boost MSB research and unlock its potential in various application fields.
More specifically we will:
§ Establish a road map that outlines the research and societal challenges in MSB in general and specifically in joining the bottomup
and top-down approaches and defines a systematic way to solve them within the international context by (1) organizing
meetings and workshops related to the different aspects covering MSB bringing together complementary expertise in SB,
policy makers, industry and other stakeholders, (2) establishing collaborative research efforts that require an international
dimension for accomplishment or can leverage efforts made in Flanders (e.g. by promoting exchange programs, apply for EUH2020
funding, etc.), (3) publish white papers and opinion papers on future challenges in the field including the view of all
stakeholders (academy, industry and society) to fully valorize MSB applications and (4) to reach out to the general public and
promote the potential of MSB in order to overcome public hesitation to embrace new developments (e.g. participation to
international prestigious competitions such as iGEM and Biodesign Challenge)
§ Improve knowledge and technology exchange in the diverse fields related in MSB, especially there were the both approaches
(bottom-up and top-down) meet by (1) setting up a virtual platform for the mutual exchange of expertise, methodologies,
tools, software, devices and parts in the diverse fields related to MSB, (2) contribute to complimentary efforts in MSB and SB
in general e.g. by contributing to the BioRoBooST project which promote synthetic biology standardization, and (3) provide
training sessions and workshops for junior postdocs to enhance knowledge and technology dissemination.