Within just a few months, the extraordinary delivery of vaccines for Covid-19 was achieved for a virus virtually unknown just 18 months earlier.
When it was needed, synthetic biology began to deliver on its promise. It has been a long road, yet Covid-19 vaccines using synthetic (laboratory made) RNA and DNA have shown ‘synbio’ can deliver.
It is about 15 years since I first heard the term ‘synthetic biology’. Cynically, I considered ‘synbio’ a buzz-word for something I was already doing – molecular biology.
But it is more. Synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biological processes, and it is driven by the belief that creating standardised biological parts or building novel biological systems can be of greater benefit to us.
Through modern DNA synthesis techniques, computer-aided-design of DNA parts and robotics to manufacture them, biologists can rapidly construct new biological systems.
Coupling these technologies with the ‘design-build-test-learn’ cycle of engineering offers great promise to solve global problems. Adopting these techniques to deliver solutions in a range of areas from commodity chemicals and medicines to tackling UN sustainable development goals is becoming reality.
One such vitally important area is tackling the global crisis in antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR is a problem that is likely to be exacerbated by the current crisis, as antibiotics have been used extensively in hospitalised Covid-19 patients to prevent life-threatening secondary bacterial infections.
This will only add to the 10 million annual deaths projected globally by 2050 from antibiotic resistant infections if we fail to address the problem.
Most current clinical antibiotics are made industrially by fermentation of Streptomyces, a natural antibiotic-producing bacterium. These bacteria mostly live in soil and make antibiotics as chemical warfare to help them compete with other bacteria.
We have exploited this trait, and as a result, antibiotics have become essential to modern medicine – curing infections, enabling surgery, and helping patients during the treatment of chronic diseases.
When first discovered, these Streptomyces bacteria failed to make the amount of antibiotics required for an industrially viable production. As such, scientists searched through tens of thousands of mutant strains for that one bacterial colony that made more antibiotic than the others.
Now we are beginning to employ engineering biology approaches to improve bacterial antibiotic production. By enabling us to produce more antibiotics, we can develop new types to combat the AMR crisis more quickly.
The engineering of Streptomyces has far-reaching implications, including supporting the adoption of sustainable feedstocks in the industrial process, ensuring greener, economically competitive manufacturing processes.
The UK biotechnology sector is estimated to be worth £81 billion a year and employs 800,000 people; by delivering on its promise, synthetic biology can provide a much-needed boost to innovation in the sector.
Professor Paul A Hoskisson is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Royal Academy of Engineering’s research chair in engineering biology of antibiotic production, University of Strathclyde. The RSE is Scotland's National Academy, which brings great minds together to contribute to the social, cultural and economic well-being of Scotland.