The 4th annual Synthetic Biology Symposium took place at the University of Waterloo on May 26th-May 28th. Synthetic biologists gathered in Kitchener, Ontario to celebrate Canadian progress in the field of Synthetic Biology. Over 170 people attended the event, promoting collaborations and sparking discussions and exchange of ideas between researchers in the field. The 3 days were filled with activities comprised of workshops, panel discussions, and research presentations.

The first day of the conference saw different workshops and panel discussions for the attendees. Workshops were held for trainees and iGEMers to introduce them to techniques in protein engineering, genetic circuit design, strain optimization, and kinetic modeling. Panels followed the workshops and generated greater engagement from students and trainees, who expressed their opinions as well  engaged in meaningful discussion with the panelists. The industry panel consisted of SynBio company executives such as Dave Conley from Aquabounty Technologies, Inc., Dr. Leo Wan from Ranomics, Graham McKinnon from the Carbon Patent Group, and Kevin Chen from Hyasynth Bio.

The industry panel representatives engaged the crowd in a discussion about the growing SynBio community in Canada and the needs of the industry in terms of skills shortages in new graduates. These leaders shared their start-up experiences with the crowd, passing on valuable insight on topics such as the Biotech IP landscape, the importance of networking, and sharing their own start-up journeys. The Educational Panel introduced the crowd to new SynBio programs in Canada while discussing the strategies and program structures used thus far. Panelists also discussed future possibilities for SynBio education in Canada. Speakers for this session included Dr. Jason Grove from the University of Waterloo, Dr. Kathleen Hill from Western University, Dr. Mads Kaern from the University of Ottawa, and Orly Weinberg from Concordia University. As many students were present, this session was extremely engaging as passionate students expressed their hopes for SynBio education across Canadian post-secondary institutions. There is still a long way to go before SynBio is truly integrated into the post-secondary educational system, but it was exciting to see that so many universities are starting the ball rolling on this initiative.

Dr. Ned Budisa, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology Keynote Address

Highlights from the second day included a keynote address from Dr. Ned Budisa, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology, and Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO of Ontario Genomics. Dr. Budisa is a renowned researcher and known for his pioneering work in genetic code engineering, chemical synthetic biology, synthetic life, biomaterials, biocontainment and the role of proline in proteins. The presentation covered the amazing work generated by synthetic chemists, biologists, biotechnologists, bioinformaticians, and biophysicists in his lab such as protein and proteome engineering through directed evolution through the in vivo incorporation of noncanonical amino acids during ribosomal translation. Furthermore, the organic synthesis of biorthogonal amino acids and research into the effects of proteins and cells was fascinating. After learning about Dr. Budisa’s research, Bettina Hamelin from Ontario Genomics continued to inspire us with her overview of the developing landscape of synthetic biology research in Canada.

The draft vision for a Canadian SynBio Roadmap comprised of three pillars. The first was enabling facilities and expertise with the establishment of foundries and addressing the problem of lack of expertise and resources. The second pillar was to seed breakthrough technologies and capabilities with sandbox grants to support disruptive innovation in engineering biology. The last pillar calls for bold mission-driven projects involving strategic, top-down programs and consortia in areas where Canada can play a leadership role. These two presentations were very exciting for the audience because it shows that Canada is making efforts toward developing a SynBio strategy both academically through research and on a broader scale through government-funded support.  

The rest of the conference was filled with trainee presentations on diverse SynBio projects. There were projects describing the engineering of phenol tolerance in yeast for improved biofuel production, bio-nano interface and stochastic DNA walkers, and optogenetic tools for investigating the Notch signaling pathway. Young researchers also shared their work on bacterial biosensors, engineered new nitrogen-fixing symbioses, and the development of bacteria as a working host for manipulation of large DNA fragments for genome engineering. The poster session also showcased the brilliant research of the young trainees. It was inspiring to see so many young scientists gathered to share their knowledge and passion for SynBio research.

We had an amazing time at the conference. A special thanks to Dr. Brian Ingalls and the organizers of the event for inviting After iGEM to the event. We truly enjoyed engaging with the iGEMers and sharing the iGEM and After iGEM story with the attendees and are excited to see such a vibrant SynBio community in Canada.

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