From Asilomar to Toulouse – Bringing Researchers Together and Synthetic Biology to the Forefront

In frosty February 1975, molecular biologists gathered at Asilomar (California, USA) for a conference going down in history. Following the recombinant DNA revolution, the ethical usage of recombinant DNA in research was discussed. Many aspects of this gathering foreshadowed issues that the child of recombinant DNA technology, synthetic biology, is struggling with nowadays. Asilomar helped shape recombinant DNA technologies and bring them into the public eye by bringing together the researchers involved in this topic.

In sunny October 2018, about 100 synthetic biologists from all over the world gathered in Toulouse, from Master’s students all the way up to distinguished professors and leaders in the field of synthetic biology. In a meeting jointly organized by the European Association of Synthetic Biology Students and Post-docs (EUSynBioS) and the French Research Group on Synthetic and Systems Biology (BioSynSys) at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse (INSA Toulouse), scientists had the chance to engage in fascinating presentations and discussions with their peers. This joint meeting was a first for both organisations and has shown the potential of collaboration between local and international scientific organisations to foster connection, exchange of ideas, and collaborations.


During four days, leaders of synthetic biology such as Prof. Dr. Sven Panke from ETH Zurich, Prof. Dr. Beatrix Suess from TU Darmstadt or Prof. Dr. Jérôme Bonnet from the University of Montpellier explained their latest advances in very diverse areas of synthetic biology to the audience. Additionally, many young researchers had the chance to present their research in oral presentations and posters. Led by the idea of a circular bioeconomy powered by synthetic biology, which was illustrated by a keynote presentation by Dr. Lorie Hamelin and an open discussion with leaders in the field. This meeting in Toulouse gave to young as well as to established researchers a potential way forward in our climate change-endangered world.

Another way forward was illustrated in workshops conducted during the conference. Dr. Konstantinos Vavitsas discussed the important longstanding issue of standards in synthetic biology with the participants, Nadine Bongaerts prepared them for conversations with the public through science communication and Dr. Pablo Ivan Nikel led a career development workshop to ensure the success of the young researchers present. Accompanied by delicious French food & wines, our participants thus had plenty of exciting science around them, which would have turned the Asilomar participants green with envy!


Yet there is an additional parallel with conferences such as Asilomar: organization, representation and the determination to bring the topic into the public eye. Next to EUSynBioS, national associations for synthetic biology such as the German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB), Synthetic Biology Canada (SynBio Canada), Synthetic Biology Australasia (SBA), Synthetic Biology UK (SynBio UK) and the US-based Engineering Biology Research Consortium Student and Postdoc Association (EBRC SPA) also presented their organizations and plans for the future. With the aim of constructing a worldwide SynBioS Consortium to help coordinate initiatives and strengthen the ties between countries and continents, the national associations exchanged information and engaged in fruitful discussion. Analogous to Asilomar, meetings such as this symposium in Toulouse helps to shape the development of synthetic biology, both within as well as without by modulating its interaction with the general public surrounding it. This is particularly important nowadays, in a world endangered by climate-change and in which scientists and synthetic biologists need to bring forward new solutions to solve humanities’ most pressing challenges.

After four days of intense engagement on every level, the participants travelled back to their respective countries, enriched in knowledge, connections, and experiences. If our participants have even a fraction of the satisfaction we have with the event then we can consider it as a major success. See you at the next synthetic biology symposium!

Posted by courtesy of the PLOS Synbio Community blog, where this was originally published.

Daniel Bojar    and    Adam Amara    are EUSynBioS steering committee members.    Alicia Calvo-Villamañán    is a member of the student committee at BioSynSys.

Daniel Bojar and Adam Amara are EUSynBioS steering committee members. Alicia Calvo-Villamañán is a member of the student committee at BioSynSys.

Introducing Synthetic Biology: A New Journal for the SynBio Community

Last year saw the launch of Synthetic Biology - a new open access journal from Oxford University Press. Aiming to serve the whole synthetic biology community, it has an extensive scope including everything from viral, protein and metabolic engineering through to mathematical modelling and engineering processes. It will provide a platform for original research papers, reviews, commentaries, project reports and discussions around the theme of synthetic biology to those working in academia, education and industry.

Professor Jean Peccoud

Professor Jean Peccoud

We got in touch with Editor-in-Chief Jean Peccoud to get more of an insight into what Synthetic Biology will bring to our community and find out where he thinks synthetic biology is heading over the next few years.

Q: What will Synthetic Biology bring to the SynBio community - how does it differ from other synthetic biology journals?

Jean Peccoud: Most of synthetic papers are still published in non-specialized journals that span a broad spectrum of scientific specialties from bioinformatics to molecular biology and biotechnology. It can be difficult for readers to notice synthetic biology papers among all the other papers that these journals publish. For authors, this dispersion can also be problematic as editors of well-established journals sometimes struggle to see how a synthetic biology submission fits within the scope of their journal.

The first journal dedicated to synthetic biology was IET Synthetic Biology. For some reason the journal was short-lived. It took five years after this early experiment to see the launch of a new journal dedicated to serving the needs of our community. Since 2012, ACS Synthetic Biology has been extremely successful. It now provides the community with a well-respected venue to publish synthetic biology research.

Its success is also a sign that the growing synthetic biology community needs channels to disseminate its research. Oxford University Press (OUP) identified this need when they decided to launch this new journal. Many synthetic biology authors are familiar with OUP, the world’s largest university press. They also publish Nucleic Acids Research and Bioinformatics, two journals that have been publishing synthetic biology papers for many years. This creates opportunities. For instance, we have developed a process to streamline the transfer of manuscripts from one journal to another. If a paper is rejected by Nucleic Acids Research because of its perceived limited significance, authors will be offered the possibility of transferring the submission and the reviews to Synthetic Biology. OUP is also known for the quality of its production process. Accepted manuscripts are formatted very quickly and only published in their final form. Authors benefit from a rigorous proofreading and typesetting that, I think, greatly contribute to the value provided by the journal.

Prior to working with OUP, I spent several years working with PloS. I became an academic editor of PloS One in 2009 and then I was instrumental in launching the PloS Synthetic Biology Collection. The editorial policies for Synthetic Biology are partly inspired by PloS ONE editorial policies. In particular, the significance of a submission is not considered when making editorial decisions. We are not chasing the Impact Factor. I think the editor’s role is to ensure that the results that are published are scientifically sound. It is for the readers to decide which papers are important by citing them over the years.

We also offer to publish categories of articles that may be difficult to publish in other journals. This includes reviews, papers describing educational programs, datasets, and even conference papers that summarize results previously presented in conference proceedings.

However, we chose not to publish any Comments or Policy papers as we think less specialized journals are probably better venues to discuss these issues.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing synthetic biology?

JP: My main concern is the security implications of the technology and its possible dual use. I think we are greatly benefiting from a fairly permissive regulatory environment. I am afraid that if a security incident were to happen, something isolated like the Amerithrax in 2001, we could end up operating in a more constraining environment that could dramatically hamper the development of the technology and its economic impact.

Q: What do you think the most exciting opportunities for synthetic biology are over the next 10 years?

JP: In the journal editorial, I explained that synthetic biology is catalyzing the next industrial revolution. I don’t think that many people could have anticipated in the 60s how the semiconductor industry is shaping our world today. We can only anticipate a revolution of a similar magnitude. It will be very interesting to see how this technology will shape the world of our children.

Although it’s still very early days for Synthetic Biology, it has already started to publish some great research, with four articles having been published this year. Two of these are experimental articles. One paper describes a biosensor for high throughput screening in metabolic engineering of yeast whilst the other paper describes a method to quickly assemble BioBrick parts.

Synthetic Biology also published two computational articles. A theoretical article proposes a network of chemical reactions capable of computing logarithms and a software paper describes an application to analyse the robustness of regulatory networks.

Submission process

On the submission process, Prof. Peccoud commented “I am very grateful to the editorial board who has set very rigorous peer-review standards. This policy translates in a fairly low acceptance rate. None of this would be possible without the efforts of the hundreds of anonymous reviewers who have generously volunteered their time to help us evaluate the submissions. The number of submissions is increasing steadily but now that our processes are running smoothly, we are certainly able to handle a larger volume of submissions.”

Ready to publish your research? Synthetic Biology currently has an open call for papers for a special issue on cell-free expression systems. This includes gene circuits, metabolic engineering, synthetic cell systems, self-assembly and TXTL and material science.

Synthetic Biology are kind sponsors of our annual Symposium at the Spanish National Centre for Biotechnology in Madrid from the 31st of August to the 1st of September. For more information about Synthetic Biology, to sign up for new content alerts, or to submit an article for publication, visit their website.