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How can synthetic biology save lives and reduce air pollution?

12 July
2022

Reichman University

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Israel’s first academic synthetic biology conference held at Reichman University by the Israeli SynBio Association.

 

 

The Israeli SynBio Association held its synthetic biology conference in June to discuss the foremost issues from the vanguard of research, that are of interest to Israel’s industry and scientific community. The conference was hosted by Reichman University’s Innovation Center and featured dozens of leading synthetic biology researchers from Israel and the world. The conference’s organizers were Dr. Yuval Dorfan of Reichman University’s Innovation Center and Dr. Jonathan Giron, the center’s COO.

 

Among other things, the conference presented research developments in areas including biosensors, living material, synthetic biology in human health and crops and vegetation, computational models, microfluidics, regulation, and more. The conference participants included hundreds of scientists, students, industry representatives and government officials, venture capital funds, entrepreneurs, and executives from companies such as Alagene, Gingko Bioworks, NfXBio, Rhenium, and GenScript.

 

Synthetic biology harnesses science to improve human health, prevent disease, protect the environment, reduce pollution, and more. It is an interdisciplinary science that involves the sophisticated engineering of genetic material, incorporating fields such as molecular biology, biochemistry, engineering, artificial intelligence and automation. Forecasts show that the global synthetic biology market is expected to reach a volume of at least $15 billion by 2025, with a growth rate of 20 percent per year.

 

Among the speakers at the conference was Chris Voigt, an MIT professor and one of the world’s pioneers of synthetic biology. From the age of 24, he has made significant breakthroughs involving genetic circuits, the discovery and production of more than a thousand molecules using bacteria and yeast, and more. At the conference, he presented some of his research and the companies that have been established on their basis. One of these, Pivot Bio, stands out for its contribution to the environment. It provides microbes as an additive to the sowing process of crops like corn, which require a lot of fertilizer. The microbes fertilize the crops, reducing the heavy use of chemical fertilizers. This product has already been sold in commercial quantities, and diminishes the many problems faced by the fertilizer industry. Another sustainability project presented by Voigt demonstrated that plastics can be provided for bacteria and yeast as an energy source instead of sugar. These bacteria and yeasts are used in the food industry as well as other industries.

 

Another researcher presenting at the conference was Prof. Dan Peer, a pioneer in the use of RNA molecules for therapy and vaccines; many of the developments in the field of RNA transport are based on his and his laboratory's work. Peer reviewed a number of technologies for the targeted transport of different RNA molecules. These technologies are able to induce gene expression and silence and splice genes (genome editing). According to Peer, the specialization of genetic medicine has gained momentum in the last two and a half years, mainly due to the COVID vaccines that use these technologies. Prof. Peer's lab was the first in the world to demonstrate the use of genome editing to treat cancer in a living animal – a development that is progressing to clinical trials in the United States. The expectation is that in the future, cutting the genes that are responsible for the division of the cancer cell, in combination with other new treatments, will help treat cancer. The first clinical trials in this field will likely involve a specific type of blood cancer.



Prof. Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute is one of Israel’s pioneers of synthetic biology, and has trained many students who are currently serving in important roles around the world. The harnessing of biology for the field of sustainability is the common thread of all of his projects. During his lecture, he described one of his flagship projects, which is designed to increase carbon fixation in order to reduce carbon dioxide in the air with the help of bacteria. This multi-year project entails extraordinary scientific complexity and interactions between a very large number of genes and a wide variety of bacteria.