Meeting Report: Cold Spring Harbor Asia – Design and Synthesis of Biological Systems

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From November 7–11, the 13th event out of 2011's 14 Cold Spring Harbor Asia Conferences, Design and Synthesis of Biological Systems, was held at the beautiful historical city of Suzhou, just an hour away from Shanghai, China. The symposium focused on synthetic biology and was organized by Prof. Sang Yup Lee (KAIST, Korea), Prof. Daniel Gibson (J. Craig Venter Institute, USA) and Prof. Pamela Silver (Harvard Medical School, USA). The modern conference center with spacious lecture theaters hosted 164 participants from 16 different countries. The participants came from all over the world, including many countries in Asia, as well as Australia, Spain, France, United Kingdom, Israel, United States, and many others.

CSH Asia Conference – Design and Synthesis of Biological Systems, was held at the beautiful historical city of Suzhou

The symposium covered latest findings across many topics in synthetic biology with a total of eight oral sessions including genome design, synthetic RNA, synthetic circuits, modeling, metabolic engineering, synthetic cells, synthetic organelles, and last but not least biofabs and the view from industry. Metabolic engineering celebrity Prof. Jay Keasling (UC Berkley, USA) opened the symposium with a keynote lecture titled “Synthetic biology for synthetic chemistry”.

It is impossible to cover all the lectures in this report; instead, some recent trends and highlights will be mentioned. The first session of the symposium dealt with metabolic engineering. Prof. S. Y. Lee introduced strategies for systems metabolic engineering of microorganisms and how it is essential to combine systems biology, synthetic biology and evolutionary biology with metabolic engineering to produce superior microorganisms. Also, another interesting lecture in this session, among others, was that presented by Prof. Christina Smolke (Stanford University, USA). She addressed recent work in designing synthetic RNA controllers, especially in developing high-throughput cell-based screens to generate synthetic regulatory RNAs and application of these RNAs.

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The increasing importance of computer modeling and software tools is a clear trend in the design and synthesis of biological systems. Evan Appleton (Boston University, USA) and Federico Katzen (Life Technologies) exemplified this by introducing tools to design synthetic biological systems. Due to the importance of predicting circuit behaviors, the designing issues are also covered in many other presentations.

The increasing importance of computer modeling and software tools is a clear trend in the design and synthesis of biological systems

Many efforts have been made on building synthetic circuits to program bacteria to operate as we desire, as presented by Prof. Christopher Voigt (MIT, USA); however, not only were microorganisms covered in this symposium, eukaryotes including yeast cells, animal cells, and plants, were also another major topic. Prof. Ron Weiss (MIT, USA) described the integration of computational and experimental approaches to engineer complex behavior within living systems ranging from bacteria to stem cells. Dr. Hiroki Ueda (RIKEN, Japan) introduced mammalian circadian clock as an example of systems and synthetic biological approaches. During the plant session, Dr. Jim Haseloff (University of Cambridge, UK) explained the great potential of plants and their wide spectrum of biosynthetic activities that can be genetically manipulated and used as crop systems for biomass, food, polymer and fuel production.

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Prof. P. Silver presented the importance of biology and using the fundamentals of biology to engineer cells to perform certain functions in logical and predictable ways. In addition to Prof. Silver's enlightening lecture, Prof. Matthew Wook Chang (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) presented their engineered Escherichia coli, which can sense and kill Pseudomonas aeruginosa by intercepting the intercellular communication chemicals of the pathogen.

The holy grail of synthetic biology is to synthesize a living cell purely from the 4-digit codes of life (A, T, G, C). Prof. Jef Boeke (Johns Hopkins University, USA) and Dr. Radha Krishnakumar (J. Craig Venter Institute) covered the issue. Prof. D. Gibson introduced their research of reversing the process of genome sequencing and synthesizing bacterial cells starting from digitized genome sequence information. Furthermore, creation of barcoded, point mutation enzyme libraries was described by Prof. Ryan Gill (University of Colorado, USA) and the application of this technique to sustainable production of fuels and chemicals.

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Prof. Michelle C. Chang (UC Berkeley, USA) proposed using synthetic biology as platform to study functions of enzymes in vivo and use the information to build new pathways for production of pharmaceutical, nanomaterial, and fuels in living cells during the biofuel and sustainability session. Dr. Caroline M. Ajo-Franklin (Harvard Medical School, USA), Prof. George Guo-Qiang Chen (Tsignhua University, China), and Gwènaëlle Bestel-Corre (Metabolic Explorer, France) showed the possibility of synthetic biology for metabolic production of interesting and industrially attractive chemicals.

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In addition to the great lectures, the symposium was enhanced by 57 poster presentations. The posters dealt with many topics starting from tools for systems biology to application and use of synthetic biology. But overall, two posters captivated the participants and were awarded the Biotechnology Journal poster prize. Dan Tan (Tsinghua University, China) presented her work on isolating Halomonas TD01 from a salt lake in Xinjiang, China to produce PHA in a cost-effective manner. Ms. Tan introduced the integrative vector system to stabilize gene expression in chromosome of Halomonas, which is similar to the Pichia pastoris expression system. Dr. Viktor Stein (University of Queensland, Australia) presented the topic of orthogonal protein prenylation system. He aimed to create a tool that can be applied to knock-in and thus probe the function of individual signaling proteins within various signaling pathways.

Dan Tan and Viktor Stein were awarded the BTJ best-poster prizes

Participants of the symposium also had a chance to visit the ancient famous Suzhou Garden named Humble Administer's Garden. The garden was full of beautiful scenery and allowed the participants to enjoy an outdoor activity away from the intellectually demanding sessions. There were many different activities offered such as Chinese tea and beer tasting accompanied by delicious finger food. Also, another highlight of the symposium was the late-night cocktail and beer parties for the participants to talk about the sessions and generate great new ideas. The symposium concluded with a dinner banquet in which the poster prize winners were announced and presented with their prize.

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On the behalf of all the participants, I would like to thank the three wonderful organizers for arranging a scientifically exciting meeting with a very pleasant atmosphere. Not only was it a great experience for the young scientists studying synthetic biology, it was also a great time for the more seasoned and experienced scientists. The next CSH Asia – Synthetic Biology symposium will be held again in Suzhou, China in November 2012. It will be jointly organized by Prof. G. Q. Chen, Prof. S. Y. Lee, and Dr. H. Ueda. I look forward to seeing you all in Suzhou in 2012!

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Link to upcoming symposium:

http://www.csh-asia.org/SYNTHESI12.html

Complete set of pictures:

http://www.csh-asia.org/photos/design_gallery.htm

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