Using Australian Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Claudia Vickers (Part 2)

So you build the ecosystem for synthetic biology, now what do you do with it?
Using Australian Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Claudia Vickers (Part 2)

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[note: this is taken from a in person discussion, some parts have been edited for flow and clarity]



Ross: Picking up on the Australian context there, now that you are developing the next generation of synthetic biology leaders, is there anything particularly Australian that synthetic biology here is been focused on or are there particular Australian concerns or problems that synthetic biology might be applicable to that wouldn’t necessarily be elsewhere?  I’ve already heard quite a lot about Australian biosecurity, invasive species, gene drives, etc.


Claudia: I’ll start where with we focused on the Future Science Platform and add a lot around that.  On the Future Science Platform, we have five application domains.  Two of them are enabling capabilities.  We have social science as one of those and we have foundation technologies and this is the place where we have all of our component trees, parts database, our high throughput robotics capabilities.  Where we build tools that can be applied to a whole load of different contexts as synthetic biology tools are want to do. 

Then we have three areas of science in which deliver into.  They are chemical and  fibres, that’s our classical metabolic engineering application domains like carbon conversion into sustainable products through environmentally sustainable bioprocesses.  Valued added naturally degradable fibres.  Then we have environment and biocontrol, which you’ve received in abundance!


Ross: it appears to be a very popular topic!


Claudia: (*laughs*) it is! It’s big!  I’ve read your blog and it’s absolutely right.  Australia is an island nation and that gives us enormous advantages for many different reasons.  We have a relatively pristine environment here but it is contaminated with cats, rats, mice…


Ross: Horses apparently as I’ve found out.


Claudia: Horses yes!  That’s a controversial one.  And varies other invasive animals that are difficult to deal with.  So we don’t have beavers right and apparently in South America there are beavers and that’s apparently a problem for mines and I was called to ask about help for!


Ross: I guess it’s relative, cause there’s a debate in the UK about bringing beavers back into the ecosystem.


Claudia: I know!  I was amused by that and it’s all relative, one man’s poison you know.  So environmental biocontrol is three different areas in that.  One is invasive pest control and pathogens and that’s all the way from fungi and bacteria to the vertebrate pests.   Bioremediation, a lot of that is biosensor and response in vitro.  And engineering resilience.   So engineering resilience is engineering ecologies and species to be resilient in the face of change and of course we are focused on climate change for that but there are other ecological perturbations that can happen.   Our flagship project in there is engineering coral reefs for resilience to climate change.  Can we engineer the endosymbiotic organisms inside the coral to better cope with the accumulation of reactive oxygen species  they experience under thermal stress so they don’t get ejected from the corals.   That sort of thing. 

So that’s environmental biocontrol and the third active area we are working in is health and medicine.  That’s a space we can make pharmaceuticals, nutriecuticals, vaccines and various other products.  It’s a space with very high update of advanced biotechnologies and there are a lot of synthetic biology products on the market already.   So those areas make sense and are specifically chosen because there is a wealth of domain knowledge inside CSIRO and across Australia.  A real wealth of domain knowledge and if there is one thing about synthetic biology when it comes to actually applying, it is if you don’t understand the domain well enough you’ll probably fail in your engineering solution.  So engineers need to work very very closely with scientists to effectively develop the right solutions in the right context.  That’s key.  Breaking down those barriers in science and engineering, one of the key findings that we need to have collaborative training programs and to have people collaborating more effective is one of the key findings of the ACOLA report.

That’s something we recognise and something CSIRO does very well, not just science and engineering boundaries but social science boudnaries.  So those are three areas we focus on but it’s much broader than that as well.  Agricultural technologies, advanced agrotechnology, genetic modification of plants.  That’s a space where CSIRO and other organisations have operated in lots in Australia and it’s a place that’s a target area since of the speed of climate change and how fast we need to deliver solutions to keep up.


Ross: I imagine in Australia you probably feel climate change particularly acute here.


Claudia: We do!


Ross: It’s not swapping to a different crop species cause your climate is warmer in the south of England, it’s that you’ve now transitioned over to desert from lush tropical rainforests.


Claudia: So there is a bit of the former happening, we’re growing grapes further and further south.  But you can only go so far with that and of course we will run into problems with desertification, salinification, that we need to solve anyway and the problems get worse faster.  The thing about synthetic biology is that it gives us a tool box to solve those problems genetically with speed, accuracy and fidelity that previous technologies didn’t.   It proves us with the high-throughput capability to examine a wide solution space.  If you’re working with standardised parts it allows you in theory to access a very large solution space, sometimes agnostically sometimes smaller, that allows you experiment on more effectively and more efficiently.  That is what I think synthetic biology brings to applied to outcomes that is different. 

The reality is that you have to be able to understand those regulatory systems to effectively engineering them and the reality is that being able to engineer them effectively does demonstrate you understand them in vivo. 


Ross: So skipping back a bit on the conversation, you mentioned context.  You’re embedding social scientists and looking at the legal, ethical and cultural considerations about synthetic biology.  What is the Australian attitude to this field and how does that differ from other parts of the world?  Are there any uniquely Australian considerations that are taken into consideration when you’re trying to make the case for synthetic biology or thinking on the roadmap to 2030 what will an Australian synthetic biology landscape look like when it’s culturally embedded?


Claudia: Fantastic questions.  So I’m just going to jump back which I realised there was something I didn’t answer previously, which is what the social science movement is doing in Australia. Which is embedded in your question.  So the social science movement in Australia is moving forward very quickly and networking very effectively with international capabilities in this space.  So I’ve mentioned before our maximizing impact social science domain but what I didn’t mention that we have a much broader initiative with is hosted in the Future Science Platform for the Responsible Innovation Initiative and that is looking at disruptive technology in society and getting impact from them in a wide range of different areas. That program is very well internationally connected with what is going on in the rest of the world and of course we have two people on the international advisory panel who are social scientists as well. 

More broadly across Australia I think partly as a result of the ACOLA report, the social science community is engaging with synthetic biology as a field and what it means.  Because there are lots of wonderful questions it throws up in terms of the research they are doing

In Australia, what do you we think about synthetic biology?  Well we’re finding that now!  In Australia there has been very little research done and what has been done has been with small sample sizes with specific directed questions and with perhaps a communications viewpoint rather than a sociologist or psychologist or ethicists’ viewpoint.  What I can tell you is that Australians’ attitudes are much more positive about genetic modification and biotechnology that in Europe for example or even the US.  So we start from a base point of much more positivity about the potential positive impact of advanced biotechnologies.  I think that’s somewhat emblematic of Australians as forward looking and postcolonial approach to the world!  The other thing about Australia is that we have perhaps the most advanced regulatory system in the world when it comes to community consultation an dimput into our regulatory processes.  It’s very well thought of internationally and a very sensible and regularly reviewed gene technology legislation.  So our regulatory environment and policy environment is very robust and forward thinking.  So that I think does make a big difference in Australia. 

The other thing I didn’t mention before is that we have this incredibly unique natural diversity and flora and fauna. 


Ross: Yeah!  So when I was speaking to someone in Perth I was like, you are sequencing everything right?  You are throwing anything you can down a nanopore?


Claudia: (*laughs*) so our future science platform is sequencing everything but that’s another whole story!

So there is this incredible wealth of genetic diversity.  On that note and on the note of the Nagoya Protocol, another area where we are working toward is to engage more with our indigenous cultures and indigenous peoples about how they engage with biotechnologies and what spaces they would like to work with us on developing the natural resources we have here.


Ross: I’ve encountered that a lot of times when I’ve talked to synthetic biologists.  They are like ‘our social scientist is down the corridor, out ethicist popped out for lunch.’.  So this field is looking at itself from all angles.


Claudia: So I was at this fascinating meeting in Melbourne a couple weeks ago with a very broad and diverse audience of lots of stake holders, including NGOS.  We were talking about designer stem cells and there was a very broad reaching discussion.  Jane Calvert was there and there was something she said that stuck in my head, she said that Australia has the opportunity to be the humble synthetic biologist.  To learn from the experiences  of other people and be humble in the way we interact with synthetic biology. 

So Roberta Kwok wrote an article in Nature where she investigated the trials and promise of synthetic biology and I often return to that when I’m presenting.  This is what we need to cognizant of.  There are a lot of big splash stories out there and people making big promises.  And it can do everything right!  But where are out pinch points and where does our hubris come back to catch us?  So that’s why social science is so important, to embed complete in the way science is designed and to co-design science.

I do think Australia has this late adopter advantage, we do in the foundry space and the science space and the engagement space.


Ross: I was watching a video of Jane Calvert and the take home message was every design choice is fundamentally a moral choice in how you engage with the world.  That seems to be a big theme in synthetic biology.  Yes, we can approach this as purely with purely an engineering point of view but what we do with those choices we make embed how we view the world and how we engage with the world.

So I guess my final question would having looked at the Australian context for synthetic biology, where do you see synthetic biology at a global level in at the end of the roadmap in 2030?


Claudia: So Australian synthetic biology at the global level or global synthetic biology in 2030?


Ross: Might as well do both.  I’m going to be transcribing for a few hours, what’s another 30 minutes?


Claudia: Ok!  So, Australian synthetic biology framed in the context of the Future Sciences Platform, is a nascent field at the moment but we are moving forward very quickly.  Within the five year to ten year horizon, I’d expect to see a rich ecosystem of industry and academia growing our economic capabilities and delivering benefits across society.  Assisting to examine and deal with our environmental problems.  Can gene drives be developed and how do you do the risk assessment?  The tech itself is ten years from development and then the regulatory process.  We’re paying a lot of attention to social science and risk development.   So we’re at 2019 now…


Ross: Yeah so 2030 isn’t that far away! I realised that the moment you said ten years! Oh my god it’s ten years away!  Let’s push it out another ten.


Claudia: I don’t think we need to push it out another ten, the rate of change is so fast.  It’s not just the rate of change but change in the way we develop technology and the breaking down of interdisciplinary barriers.

So I think it’s biological electronic hybrids.  Our ability to interface biological systems through synthetic biology to electronic components and everything that will give us.  Access to the internet, analytical capabilities in real time. We’re basically going to turn into the Borg right!


Ross: I’ll find a gif of the Borg for this post.


Claudia: I’ve got the pictures and slides!  But it won’t look nasty right? It’ll look more like Seven of Nine than Jean Luc Picard taken by the Borg.  But the way our brains work will be different and I think that’s really revolutionary.  It won’t change just the way we do science but how we interface with the world.

Unless something catastrophic happens!

I guess my motivation for all of this is that I want to make the world a better place.  To fix the damage we as a species have done to the planet and move us to more sustainable ways of living and interacting with the planet.


Ross: well I think that’s a brilliant point to end it on.  Thank you!

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