Over the past decade, the development of fast and affordable technologies for DNA sequencing and synthesis and a growing understanding of complex biological systems have opened the door to a new approach to biology. It has become possible, at least in principle, to standardize, design, and build from scratch biological parts—and assemble them into systems that perform specific functions in a predictable and reliable way. This new field is synthetic biology, defined by the European Commission as “the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms.”
The field is still in its infancy, but its potential applications are vast. Already, countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have expressed interest in harnessing synthetic biology on an industrial scale to tackle global challenges such as climate change, energy consumption, environmental protection, and health care. Synthetic biology could usher in a new bioeconomy where biomass becomes the primary source of feedstocks for chemicals and materials currently manufactured from crude oil and natural gas. Already, synthetic biology is making its first steps as an enabling technology to produce fuels, chemicals, and plastics.
Synthetic biology draws on a broad range of fields and has the potential to influence or rejuvenate many others.
In one estimate, the global market for synthetic biology was forecast to reach almost $39 billion by 2020. It is difficult to predict how economic forecasts will translate into jobs for scientists, and up to now, a lot of the research and development in synthetic biology has taken place away from the big companies. But a number of companies are starting up and growing, with the California-based Amyris, for example, which produces renewable specialty chemicals and fuels from plant sugars, employing around 400 people.
Only time will tell, but we believe the number of people employed in this field is likely to grow considerably in the coming years. Young scientists and engineers interested in contributing to R&D and entrepreneurship in synthetic biology must prepare now. Here, we offer insight into the broad range of skills needed and list some of the training opportunities currently on offer.
What skills do I need?
Synthetic biology draws on a broad range of fields and has the potential to influence or rejuvenate many others. This means that, above all, synthetic biologists need to be multidisciplinary. They must be grounded in one or several core disciplines: genetics, systems biology, microbiology, or chemistry. But they must also draw on engineering—to be able to break down biological complexity and standardize it into parts, or design new biological systems and components, drawing on engineering’s quantitative approach. This requires skills in mathematics, computing, and modeling.
Engineers, mathematicians, and physicists drawn to synthetic biology need to grasp and develop broad knowledge in modern biology—and be able and willing to embrace biology’s complexity and variability. The challenge for engineers is twofold: Biology does not naturally lend itself to standardization, and what they are trying to produce will also attempt to evolve with time. Synthetic biologists need to be well versed in experimental design and biostatistics, bioinformatics, large dataset management, and data mining.
Synthetic biologists who wish to create their own startups need to learn entrepreneurship and management skills. Those working in the commercial world must be familiar with industrial biosafety requirements, risk assessment methods, and regulatory issues.
Finally, researchers and entrepreneurs working in synthetic biology need to be aware of the societal, ethical, political, and economic context. Already GMOs, which have so far been produced by genetic engineering with minor changes in their genomes, have been subject to extensive societal debate and political and economic pressures. Synthetic biologists must prepare themselves to deal with controversy by becoming politically and media savvy and learning how to engage in public discourse.
Where to gain training and exposure
Formal education in synthetic biology is still a pioneering field, but the number of dedicated or related university courses has grown fast these past few years, with at least 100 institutions now involved.
Currently, the most common training programs lead to research master’s degrees. In Europe, the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI), for example, offers a 2-year Interdisciplinary Approaches in Life Sciences master’s program with a specific track in systems and synthetic biology. Students in this program study statistics, biophysics, and computational approaches while also training in scientific communication and the ethics of bioengineering. The course is open to students with a wide range of backgrounds, including mathematics, physics, computer sciences, chemistry, biology, medicine, philosophy, and sociology. Non-biologists who wish to learn about life sciences may also be accepted for a Ph.D. or postdoc. The 1-year MRes program in systems and synthetic biology at Imperial College London offers a stronger research focus, supporting students in the life sciences, engineering, and physical sciences for collaborative work. Newcastle University runs a 1-year M.Sc. program in synthetic biology for students with biological, computational, mathematical, or engineering backgrounds. The program, which is based in the School of Computing Science, focuses on computing and engineering skills for the programming of biological systems.
Opportunities also exist at the Ph.D. level. In the United Kingdom, for example, the University of Oxford, the University of Bristol, and the University of Warwick jointly run the EPSRC and BBSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Synthetic Biology, which is a 4-year program open to students from a broad range of fields, including engineering, biochemistry, plant sciences, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computing.
One does not need to embark on a full-time degree to get started in synthetic biology. Last year, the International Synthetic and Systems Biology Summer School in Italy began offering researchers, at all levels, and industrial professionals 5 days of courses in topics including genome design, metabolic engineering, synthetic circuits and cells, biological design automation, and high-throughput techniques. There are also many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on platforms such as Coursera and edX, spanning fields from engineering through molecular biology to industrial biotechnology. Courses like these can help young scientists gain the basic toolset they need to start thinking about engineering biology in useful ways. A number of innovative initiatives are also coming up, such as the SynBio4All platform supported by CRI, which can be described as part MOOC, part open laboratory notebook, and part crowdsourcing discussion platform on synthetic biology.
Alternative training opportunities are arising, too. Young scientists may enter a number of international contests, including the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) contest and BIOMOD, an annual biomolecular design competition. Through iGEM, interdisciplinary teams of supervised students or community lab members throughout the world engineer genetic systems, using standardized biological parts, to tackle a broad variety of global synthetic biology challenges, from producing sustainable chemicals to detecting environmental contaminants. All iGEM projects must explicitly address potential biosafety, biosecurity, intellectual property, ethics, and public-engagement concerns.
So far, there are no MBAs dedicated to the specific needs of synthetic biology, but MBAs for the biotechnology and chemical industries do offer a good starting point, and so-called mini-MBAs are a good way to fill knowledge gaps. The European 5-day Mini MBA For the Chemical Industry, which is offered by Management Centre Europe, covers globalization, REACH, green chemistry, waste reduction, sustainability, and operational efficiency—all relevant to startups and other companies pursuing synthetic biology. Also, a number of specialized incubators groom next-generation synthetic biology entrepreneurs. IndieBio’s campuses in San Francisco and Cork, Ireland, provide 3-month seed funding and mentoring for promising synthetic biology startup projects.
While it doesn’t specifically focus on industry, the international Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program offers fellowships to entrepreneurs (as well as academics, artists, and policymakers) who want to become leaders and change-makers in the field. The 1-year program includes lectures and mentoring aimed at helping fellows collaboratively develop strategic action plans to impact the field.
Synthetic biology is unique for the range of skills it requires, the fast pace at which it develops, and the breadth of applications it promises. To be successful in such a field, early-career scientists need above all vision, audacity, and adaptability. Those who succeed will, through their creativity and ability to collaborate, help usher in a more sustainable economy. With the gradual shift away from a world dependent on fossil resources to a world dependent on biomass—and the plethora of technical difficulties this presents—interesting career and business opportunities should be plentiful.
The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or of the governments of its member countries.