Standards and Metrology

in Synthetic Biology

The importance of synthetic biology and its potential to impact a wide range of applications is well recognised in scientific, government and technology development sectors. Synthetic biology (alternatively called Engineering Biology) is a burgeoning sector and cuts across different concepts and capabilities within life sciences as a whole, including applications such as biomedicine, bioremediation, bioenergy and innovative material and chemicals. There are many variables to factor in when looking to scale-up the production of a synthetic biology product, and the availability of reference standards is key to enabling the full exploitation and development of synthetic biology technologies. Yet, the inherent complexity of biological systems and molecules poses measurement challenges that are distinct from those of chemical and physical metrology; these can't be met by a single stand-alone technique or approach. As such, we find that the establishment of a unique set of standards and measurement techniques is one the most important objectives for contemporary synthetic biology.

Standards provide certainty in the consistency of the product performance, and confidence in the ability to measure and evaluate key performance parameters. These are the main attributes in deciding which products are validated, adopted, and ultimately commercialised by industry. The growing demand for scaling up such technologies raises the issue of what is needed to make them work at an industrial scale. Establishing industry-led measurements and standards will safe-guard the quality and safety of products and allow companies to maintain competitiveness and enhance innovation.

As such, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) helped fund a partly-virtual Centre of Excellence in Engineering Biology, Metrology and Standards in 2018. As the core project partners, SynbiCITE and NPL are collaborating through this virtual centre. A higher order cell-free platform for intracellular measurements is being developed that will generate candidate reference materials and synthesis protocols in the form of a ‘ toolbox’. Industry confidence in the higher order biological reference materials that are developed will be ensured through their validation and certification by NPL, and regular engagement with the spectrum of synthetic biology companies will help ultimately transform high-value manufacturing into high-value products. SynbiCITE is well connected with many spin-outs and start-ups, who we have seen to be the major channel for industrial translation.
A community is being developed that is committed to addressing the measurement and standards constraints that this sector faces, and which cuts across the breadth of Synthetic Biology. We aim to identify key technical, regulatory and societal challenges for the development and adoption of standards, and to identify the barriers to adoption with the relevant stakeholders. If you’d like to get involved in this necessary agenda, would like more information or discuss this approach, please get in touch with Dr Tabasum Farzaneh. Tabasum is the Senior Industrial Officer for SynbiCITE and is managing the Industrial Strategy project for Synthetic Biology. She also sits within the strategy team for Health and Life Sciences at NPL.

Past events

A workshop was recently hosted by SynbiCITE and NPL in February 2020. The event was held at the Imperial College Innovation and Translation Centre for the UK Synthetic Biology community, home of SynbiCITE’s London Biofoundry. Industrialists, academics, the UK’s National Measurement Institutes and policy makers spent the day discussing the measurements and standards needed to help the UK synthetic biology industry improve the manufacturing and adoption of new products. You can read more about the workshop here and sign up to the Working Group

Future events

Follow-up UK workshop on Standards and Measurement Practises in Synthetic Biology at NPL, Teddington (Date TBC - Autumn 2020)
International event in Summer 2021 (Details TBC)


London DNA Biofoundry: SynbiCITE’s London Biofoundry provides a suite of state-of-the-art robotic equipment enabling automated end-to-end design, construction and validation of complex genetic systems. It is designed to bridge the gap between academia and industry, accelerating developments in engineering biology technologies and allowing SynbiCITE’s industry and academic partners to prototype new biological-based chemicals, drugs and materials. This high-throughput Biofoundry has been key in recognising the importance of common standards to interoperability and the value of open source platforms

NPL Biometrology: NPL’s Biometrology facility in Teddington enables the development of cutting-edge measurement tools and methods, based on the principles of biological modularity, to unlock new possibilities for real-world applications in synthetic biology. Through the virtual centre for Engineering Biology, Metrology and Standards, NPL is increasing its industry engagement to address specific measurement challenges that the sector faces today

Related initiatives

BioRoBoost: "Fostering Synthetic Biology standardisation through international collaboration”

The main goal of the BioRoboost Project is to foster international discussions on standards among key actors of synthetic biology from Europe, North America and Asia. This project receives funding from the European Commission H2020 Research & Innovation Programme. Imperial College academics, including SynbiCITE’s Co-Directors (Profs Richard Kitney and Paul Freemont ) are key collaborators and contributors.
BioRoboost is actively engaging views of the Biotechnology industry into standard development, and we see significant synergy when it comes to helping to develop a reference and measurement framework for a range of synthetic biology applications, find out more here

Global Biofoundries Alliance (GBA)

The 'Metrology, Reproducibility and Data Quality working group' aims to address standardisation when applied to the context-dependent and emergent behaviour of living systems through the Biofoundries’ infrastructure. The WG is currently canvasing the current metrology infrastructure in the GBA’s Biofoundries and identifying open-source metrology projects that could form the basis of a collaboration that will help develop measurement protocols, reference materials and inter-operability between Biofoundries and uniformity within the early translational stages of synthetic biology. Prof Paul Freemont is the chair of this WG.