Western Synthetic Biology Symposium 3.0
Benjamin Scott - August 31, 2018
The third annual Western Synthetic Biology Symposium was the largest yet, with over 150 attendees, 30 posters, and oral presentations throughout the day. Although focused on synbio research happening in southwestern Ontario, there were speakers from both industry and academia from across Ontario and Quebec. Dr. Cintia Coelho traveled the furthest, all the way from the University of Braslia, to present her work on using integrases for genome engineering, and highlighting the truly international scope of synbio research.
The day was kicked off by industry talks, where representatives from Ontario companies Specific Biologics, Designer Microbes Inc., and Ardra Bio discussed their exciting technology and spoke enthusiastically about their collaborations with Canadian universities. The US company SGI-DNA also showcased their new BioXp 3200 “DNA printer”, which automatically constructs custom DNA fragments as large as 1.8kb. Western University recently acquired one of these machines, which costs up to $65K/year to maintain. But, Dr. Karas (Western University/Designer Microbes Inc.) was quick to point out that by splitting costs between labs, access to this machine is relatively affordable. In addition, synthesizing DNA directly enables the design of complex DNA libraries, saving time and money versus traditional molecular biology techniques.
Next, Dr. Jordan Thomson from Ontario Genomics hosted a panel discussion on the “Present and Future State of SynBio in Canada”. This discussion built on the Canada Synthetic Biology 2018 conference in March, also hosted by Ontario Genomics. Featuring a panel of professors and postdocs from four different Ontario universities, the wide-ranging panel discussion is summarized in a companion article (read about it here).
Dr. Rebecca Shapiro (University of Guelph) gave the keynote presentation, and presented her exciting work on developing functional genomic tools to study pathogenic fungi. Shockingly, the number of deaths per year due to fungal infections is equivalent to HIV/AIDS, but the development of new anti-fungal compounds has lagged in recent years. She described her use of CRISPR gene drives to stably engineer these otherwise difficult to study fungal strains, which is a resourceful new tool for understanding these pathogens.
The day was capped with presentations from graduate and undergraduate students, representing the newest generation of synbio researchers in Canada. Excitingly, Western University is launching its own synthetic biology training program at the undergraduate and graduate levels, the first of its kind in Ontario. Members of the student-led Western Synthetic Biology Research Group (WSBR) discussed their efforts to promote and launch this program, which gained momentum due to strong student interest. The WSBR is now leading an undergraduate research program, focused on experiential learning in synbio. This example of student leadership paired with support from professors is an inspiration for other synbio programs across the country! (read the SynBio Canada article about the WSBR here)
Dr. David Edgell gave concluding remarks, expressing his excitement about the growth of synbio in Ontario. He also called for ideas on launching a “grand challenge”, which could be solved through collaborative efforts by researchers in southwestern Ontario. This enthusiasm perfectly summarized the conference, where the growth of local synbio research programs is leading to exciting new opportunities for southwestern Ontario and beyond.