To begin the year, we head across the pond for an outlook on the thriving community of synthetic biology in the United Kingdom.
Paul Freemont was a co-author of the UK's synthetic biology roadmap and co-directs SynbiCITE, the national center for the commercialization of synthetic biology. A few years ago the government put an initial investment of $300 million pounds into the field, and "everything was going swimmingly well," says Paul. "Then COVID happened."
Paul himself was running what is called the London Biofoundry which is similar to what we call an accelerator here in the States--except that it's funded publicly.
"And the pandemic was such a moment because in the UK in March of 2020, we had a total capacity--nationwide-- to do about 10,000 SARS Cov-2 tests. All the hospitals and others didn't have any capacity for testing. So we pivoted our whole Biofoundry to do an open testing platform. Within eight weeks, we had a working platform that was doing 2,500 tests per day."
We know the rest of the story--the UK became a success model for testing during the pandemic. With things stabilizing around COVID and researchers free to go back to business as usual, what excites Paul about synbio today?
He says that scaling for all synbio companies holds some exciting challenges and opportunities right now. As for the 800-pound gorilla we often discuss here in the U.S.--that is PR--Paul says that the UK is a bit of a different animal. Society there is "tech literate" and with the cost of energy skyrocketing this winter, the average person has become much more open, by necessity, to arguments that synbio holds big promise to bring sustainability to a plundered planet.