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How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology

‘The time is now to invent our future,’ say field leaders
November 3, 2014
By Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is
Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.  

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

How synthetic biology works

Put simply, synthetic biology applies engineering principles to biology to build biological systems that can benefit humankind. It takes the biological information encoded in DNA from one system and renders it functional through its transition and manipulation to another system.

Both the United Kingdom and United States have made synthetic biology a national priority. Both the United Kingdom and United States have made synthetic biology a national priority. | Photo by DNA Art Online (Flickr Creative Commons)

To realize the exponential potential of such innovations, develop them efficiently and deliver them responsibly requires an ecosystem of research and investment that crosses academic disciplines, the public and private sectors.

Both the United Kingdom and United States have made synthetic biology a national priority. In January, the UK invested over £40 million to establish multidisciplinary research centres that combine innovative science with industry training to form a new generation of bioscience researchers and entrepreneurs.

Canadians: the next leaders in the field?

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

Building the blueprint

On October 28 to 29, Concordia University — which houses Canada’s flagship synthetic biology research centre — Genome Canada, Genome Québec, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec and the UK Science and Innovation Network hosted a workshop assembling some of the major British and American players in the field. The goal was to learn from their experiences and think strategically about how to position Canada as a leader in this breakthrough field.

Designing and delivering a Canadian blueprint for synthetic biology will take vision, hard work, cross-sectoral collaboration and money. The success of genomics research illustrates the foresight of committing resources to compete in areas with truly transformative potential. Canada cannot be left behind when it comes to tapping into the infinite promise of synthetic biology. The time is now to invent our future.

Find out more about Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.


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