Moving to the World of Digital Biology

  • Posted on 30 March, 2020

Professor Richard Kitney shares his thoughts on engineering biology and its role in today's world.

It seems as if at moment coronavirus for COVID-19 is dominating the airwaves. There is no question that the international scientific community is focused heavily on understanding the virus and developing much more rapid tests for detecting the virus and detecting who has become immune. In both cases engineering biology is playing an important part in such developments. In previous blogs I have mentioned the Canadian company Medicago, because they seem to have a really novel approach to vaccine development, based in engineering biology/synthetic biology. It is certainly true that the company is working on a vaccine for coronavirus and, according to their website, this is now at the preclinical stage.

As described in a previous blog (3rd March), the basic methodology was developed by Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre for Agri science near Cambridge, UK. He discovered that rapidly multiplying a little-known plant virus (cowpea mosaic virus, CPMV) in greenhouse grown plants is a solution to flu vaccine production. CPMV is used to produce a non-infective viral shell called a virus like particle (VLP). In the case of influenza, genetic information from the human virus, decorates the shell with influenza surface proteins. In relation to COVID-19, Medicago say that having produced the appropriate VLPs for coronavirus, they will now undergo preclinical testing. Let’s hope that the method works because, fundamentally, vaccine can be produced much more rapidly than by using conventional methods. The second major advantage is that because it is an agriculturally based method, scaling could be rapid and major.

It is clear that, in addition, a number of the diagnostic methods that are currently being developed that rely on engineering biology techniques. Two of the cornerstones of engineering biology are DNA sequencing and synthesis. New developments in DNA synthesis are always extremely interesting. Evonetix is an exciting Cambridge UK-based DNA synthesis company that this month received $30m USD Series B investment led by West Coast investor Foresite Capital. This is another example of West Coast investors investing in UK companies that have exciting engineering biology technology. Evonetix utilises silicon chip technology of a type that might be more familiar in the microelectronics industry – involving the integration of biology with physics and engineering. The technology synthesises DNA at “many thousands of independently controlled reaction sites on the chips surface” called pixels (a term derived directly form image processing.

The Evonetix technology is interesting because it addresses biology with the rigour of physical science. This is the world of digital biology where data and information are key. The growth of the international BioEconomy will rely heavily on industrial translation – where the cornerstones are standards, reproducibility and reliability. In the field of engineering biology/synthetic board much can be learned from the automotive industry. Design is the central, with the ability to manage complexity through modularity and the use of CAD. Automated measurement is essential in order that specs are measured and met. Data acquisition needs to be automated (this is a key feature in the development of the Biofoundry concept). Finally, there needs to be continuous improvement in analytics and process development. But, above all, the industrial translation of synthetic biology/engineering biology research requires high levels of reproducibility. We are already seeing the development of a bio design ecosystem that comprises, for example, design tools companies, parts companies, chassis’ companies and DNA synthesis companies. The field is rapidly moving away from the extensive use of wet lab biologists and human design to the extensive use of CAD and optimisation techniques, coupled to Biofoundries.

Apropos the increasing importance of engineering and physical science in the applications of biology, as evidenced in the field of Engineering Biology/Synthetic Biology, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) launched a new journal, Engineering Biology, two years ago. The IET is a major, international engineering and technology organisation, spanning a wide range of industry and academia. The Engineering Biology journal is, therefore, particularly interesting. Because it is an IET journal, papers and articles relating to Engineering Biology are read by a much wider audience than would otherwise be the case. In addition, the journal includes a range of different types of papers and articles. In addition to standard, full-length, research papers, the journal publishes review articles; industry articles, from companies explaining their technology; and bio parts datasheets – which are used by designers in the field of engineering biology/synthetic biology. The link to the Engineering Biology is