Seminar: Scalability and responsible innovation

Written by: Karmella Haynes. Nathan Hillson presented the latest innovations in synthetic biology support tools from the Joint Genome Institute. The institute has developed a system called DIVA, which allows a researcher to quickly compose synthetic DNA sequences and request the production of this DNA.

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The tool interfaces with many repositories, including JBEI, so that the user can search for a DNA part of interest with a single web interface. JGI also hosts a physical repository for plasmid DNA, so that a user can request DNA samples to use in the lab.

One of the most important pieces of information for collections of DNA parts is the data that shows how that DNA actually functions in the context of a living cell. Collecting this data from users is a tough challenge. JGI has developed a “data depot” which links DNA entries with experimental data. What’s more, JGI has collaborated with a leading synthetic biology journal, ACS Synthetic Biology, to simplify (and require) the submission of well-described DNA sequences that are reported in published articles.

Nathan concluded with an anecdote about responsible innovation and biosafety. After a JGI representative described a robust, phage resistant microbe to support large scale bio-production, an audience member asked what happens once the phage-resistance microbe, which now has no natural predators, gets into the environment. The presenter found himself in the awkward position of having nothing to say. This inspired him to create the JGI SynBio Internal Review Committee for proposals for large gene synthesis projects. The reviewers (consisting of JGI internal and external professionals) comment on biosafety, biosecurity, ethical, legal, social, and environmental aspects. So far, the JGI SynBio IRC has had a positive impact. For instance, roughly 50% of the proposals received critiques that resulted in improvements in how the scientists thought about and articulated societal and environmental impacts.

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