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By Claire Harris 23 July 2021 5 min read

Synthetic biology is one of the fastest-growing areas of modern science.

It combines engineering and biology to build systems—at the cellular level—to make better products. Examples of these products include industrial chemicals, food ingredients, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and medicines.

Synthetic biology can improve things like sustainability because the product—for example, an industrial chemical—doesn't have to be made from harmful chemicals. It can instead biodegrade and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Synthetic biology may be worth somewhere between USD$2–4 trillion dollars in direct economic impact by 2040. The areas with the most potential include human health, agriculture, consumer goods and materials.

This exciting new field is one we are working on at CSIRO. Meet Dr Claudia Vickers, Director of our Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform (FSP), who is passionate about making synthetic biology a bigger part of our lives for big-picture benefits.

Creating a bio-based circular economy

Synthetic biology research and the manufacturing of new products could enable Australia to transform its economy by creating new, more sustainable industries and generating jobs, according to Claudia.

“At a practical level, think chemicals and materials that are truly sustainable, medical treatments that are produced more quickly and ethically, and plastics that biodegrade.

“Synthetic biology is an important new field that can help overcome a range of global challenges we face, particularly in agriculture and health,” said Claudia.

However, this area of innovation is not without important ethical and social considerations. And this is why the Synthetic Biology FSP has driven forward an extensive social research program. Here at CSIRO, we promote responsible science, adhere to all government regulations and guidelines and ensure that if technology is implemented it considers social and institutional risks, as well as benefits and values.

There are a number of products made using synthetic biology on the market already

Here are some examples:

Since joining our organisation in 2017, Claudia has dedicated her time and energy to positioning CSIRO to lead the bio-revolution in Australia. She also works to support the country to play a leadership role internationally.

“What I find motivating is the opportunity to make a difference in the real world,” Claudia said.

“This requires doing things at scale. And we aren’t doing that in synthetic biology as much as we need to yet.

“So, how do we get to scale with our synthetic biology solutions? How do we solve those really big problems? Which Sustainable Development Goals can we tackle using synthetic biology?” she said.

Inspired by building and fixing things

Where did Claudia find her passion for this particular field that combines science and engineering?

Growing up on a farm, Claudia learned at a young age that she had a knack for fixing and building things.

“I always loved making things with my own hands and seeing a product come out of it,” Claudia said.

“My father was an electrical engineer, so I played a lot with circuits and soldering irons as a kid. In high school, I also worked in my mother’s lab; she was a molecular biologist. And at university, I also became a molecular biologist. Then I realised that engineering and molecular biology make a great combination.

“We are building toolboxes of DNA-encoded parts. DNA is actually quite a simple code. Once you know the code you can build so many different things, and target lots of important problems,” she said.

But working from the DNA level up to creating kilograms or even tonnes of products sounds overwhelming. Luckily other technologies can help.

Using advanced technology

Synthetic biology is not only about scientists in a lab, creating new products. This field incorporates all sorts of ‘speedy science’ tools like computer programs, robotics, and artificial intelligence. They help to test designs and suggest the next design steps.

These different tools are brought together in a facility called a ‘BioFoundry’. It’s an advanced bio-engineering facility enabling researchers and industry users to rapidly design, build and test new biotechnologies.

“A BioFoundry allows researchers to explore a vast experimental space quickly, looking for better solutions,” said Claudia.

One example is the process of trying to get yeast to make a new industrial chemical, something usually made from unsustainable and non-renewable chemicals derived from petroleum. Changing to a new process can involve dozens of metabolic steps inside the cell and then hundreds more options to optimise the process.

“A human testing the steps, using rational design in the lab, could only really look at half a dozen different combinations at a time,” said Claudia.

“But in CSIRO’s BioFoundry, we use a combination of molecular biology, data science, robotics, and machine learning to look at 10,000 or 100,000 combinations. As a result, we can see the best options much faster,” she said.

Once we have the best solution that gives good yields, then we can take it into a scale-up facility. An example is our fermentation facility in Clayton.

Which project is most exciting for Claudia right now?

“The opportunity to train fungi to produce a particularly powerful plant hormone to create a product to control weeds and save crops,” Claudia said.

The hormone she is referring to is called strigolactone. It controls branching in plants which is important for plant yields, and helps symbiosis with beneficial fungi in the soil. Stigolactone also causes the seeds of a nasty parasitic weed called witchweed to germinate.

“Witchweed is a real problem in nutrient-poor soils like in Sub-Saharan Africa. It can wipe out 80 per cent of the crop through attaching to plant roots and sucking out their nutrients and water, like a vampire plant!” Claudia said.

Farmers could apply a strigolactone-based product before planting the crops. As a result, parasitic Witchweed seeds would quickly germinate and die, leaving the planted crops to survive and produce food.

There are other applications too, such as increasing yields in crop plants and encouraging extra tree growth. This can deliver benefits to agriculture and silviculture (the management of forests), and might even contribute to carbon storage objectives.

A broader, collaborative agenda for synthetic biology

For Claudia, bringing technology, the research community and stakeholders together is crucial.

“There is so much potential. But we need to rapidly expand the capability and community across Australia to benefit from this massively growing industry,” she said.

Claudia says her work in the Synthetic Biology FSP is far less about her science and more about the people around her.

So, what’s the best part of her job?

“Creating an enabling environment for others. It becomes less about the cool science I can do with my own hands and mind and more about supporting other people,” Claudia said.

“The really exciting thing is making a difference to Australia and creating opportunities for all the people who have amazing science and engineering career trajectories in front of them,” she said.

Find out more about the Synthetic Biology FSP’s mission to develop capacity in synthetic biology, both within our organisation and across Australia, and to responsibly develop new industries with ethics and social acceptance considerations at the core.

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