Future trends and opportunities in synthetic biology, by Dr Tom Ellis, Imperial College


By @SimonCocking

Interview with Dr Tom Ellis @DrTomEllis synthetic biology lecturer in London, researching at Imperial College. Bilingual in English and DNA.

What is possible now?

That’s a very broad question. The state of the art in synthetic biology depends on which angle you are looking at it from. In terms of sheer size, the biggest projects that are possible now are ones where whole bacterial and yeast chromosomes are redesigned, synthesised and assembled to make cells with designed genomes. However right now we are quite limited in terms of how much redesign we can do as its hard to predict what designs will work and what will fail.

What you guys are doing well at?

Huge progress has been made in DNA synthesis and assembly in the last few years. I think we’re getting very good in my group and in others at building large constructs from cheap synthetic DNA and routinely we are making combinatorial libraries with potentially millions of possible designs in each tube.

Mendel painted with yeast #syngenome2015 pic.twitter.com/uTfVOF0jAs

— Tom Ellis (@DrTomEllis) July 16, 2015

What is coming soon?

Even cheaper synthetic DNA is on the near horizon thanks to companies like Twist Biosciences and Gen9bio. And with cheaper DNA comes more uses for it. I think we’ll shortly see a lot of examples of how information and even self-assembling structures can be written using DNA. We’re going to start to see a blurring of the boundaries between synthetic biology and nanotechnology.

What is further down the road due to current tech limits / challenges?

The biggest limitation right now is our inability to learn from design failures and then predict the next designs that will work. This means it’s quite hard to design complex systems de novo and get them to work. Progress from systems biology in terms of whole cell models built using vast amount of experimental data will help us in this regard. I expect in 10 years that everyone building synthetic constructs to run in E.coli will design them beforehand on computer programs that simulate the whole cell.

Lab clean up day. Lots to do but the reward of Thai food is coming! pic.twitter.com/JyMh0isanu

— Tom Ellis (@DrTomEllis) July 29, 2015

The future, what you are excited by?

We can already reprogram microbes to sense, report and act in environments as diverse as the gut to polluted soil and getting regulatory approval for these to be used in real scenarios will be a long hard road but one worth taking. I’m most excited about seeing what is possible in the lab now being used as real products in everyday life. The idea that reprogrammed cells in the human body could release the required drugs and hormones for treatments as and when they are needed is especially exiting. Imagine the reduced costs to healthcare if therapeutics were made in-situ in your body as soon as you need them.