Synthetic biology is a hot topic among academics, industry and biohackers. Stanford, Harvard and MIT led the academic path of engineering microbes to act as cell factories. Companies like Evolva biotech have engineered yeast to such levels where any bio-product is within reach. Even biohackers have developed products such as the Glowing plant (California) and Glowing E.coli (Paris) to add to the movement.
This increase of interest in this area has been spurred on by the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that allows for a more stable and targeted modification of the genome. It is a revolutionary technology that has the potential to change our current definition of genetically modified organisms.
Naturally, when an area like this is rapidly developing, there are always ethical concerns of its use and misuse that arise.
The Synenergene Forum was organized by the Rathenau instituut as part of the EU Horizon2020 mandate for “Responsible Research and Innovation in Synthetic Biology” and hence the dialogue was very interesting for us Biohackers. We were grateful to the Karlsruhe Institut für Technologie (KIT) for providing funding for travel and accommodation and to Rüdiger Trojok for inviting us. The venue for the event was the Science Centre NEMO close to Amsterdam Centraal. Besides conference facilities, the center was home to a lot of interesting scientific experiments and principles made easy for children to play around with.
Day 1 of the forum was a conference style event with a dynamic mix of scientists, engineers, philosophers, artists and members from religious studies. They engaged the audience through a keynote speech, a panel discussion and numerous workshops that one could select based on their interest. As always, there was a lot of coffee and networking in the gaps between talks. We got to meet the other biohackers from the DIY-Bio Europe community as well as some from California.
The general opinion we observed was that scientists were using synthetic biology to broaden the scientific horizon at the fundamental end, while engineers were applying design principles and computational analysis to find industrial uses for the products of SynBio research. The philosophers and artists felt that synthetic biology is a new toy and that we are not sure if we need it. “It has the potential to cause wide ecological damage if not contained effectively” seemed to be the flavour of the opposition. The tragedy with Monsanto and GM plants was raised, as well as the Glowing plant project that could potentially release thousands of GM seeds without any containment.
As day 1 came to an end, the group of biohackers, now about 15 people strong, left the venue together in search of food, beer and a place to hang out and share our ideas. We eventually gravitated to the one place that housed a hackerspace and biolab, the famous “Waag Society”. For those of you that do not know, the Waag Society is an active community workshop and laboratory and is well known for its hackathons and its Biohack Academy. It is also housed in an ancient building that was a mason workshop in the medieval times. It was a great experience being there and learning from their organization.
Day 2 of the Forum was a bit more relaxed and focused on the future of SynBio, its need in the future, and what various new stakeholders think of it. Since synthetic biology will not only affect the people working with it, the panels included people from civil sciences and religious areas, for their viewpoint on the constructive use of SynBio. We also saw some amazing videos and presentations from Biohackers about their projects and how they are making a difference and including society with it.
The second day made us question whether technology is good if its use can destroy the economies of countries that farm certain crops for their active ingredient (eg. Vanillin, safranin, stevioside, etc). Such patented synbio technology causes a monopoly since poor farmers cannot compete with industrial automation and billions of VC dollars that are at the core of SynBio products.
After the day event at Science Center NEMO, we moved to a new location called Mediamatic for dinner and then a screening of a film by the group BIOFACTION from Austria. It was an interesting series of short films on SynBio and we were happy to be a part of the viewing. After the films the biohackers assembled again for a night out in Amsterdam, ending very late with some street food before heading home. Ideas were spread, creativity surged and potential collaborations were initiated! We were also introduced to the concept of “GENE-DRIVES” which we felt will play a strong role in Genetic modification of the future.
We returned to Copenhagen the next morning, with a sense of purpose. Biologigaragen has been well recognized for its community engagement through experiments and workshops. We have a vibrant community and interested people who have interdisciplinary skills; we live in a country that has the highest number of biotech companies per area: and we are the first community Lab in Denmark! We are now motivated to activate new members, redefine our space and realize our true potential as citizen scientists with the power to make a difference!