James Field - Life in a library

11 October 2015

Interview with

James Field, Imperial College London

Kat - Also while I was at Imperial I caught up with James Field, who's just launched a new company called LabGenius, capitalising on the growing interest in synthetic biology. I started by asking him what first got him into it.

James - It all started when I was an undergraduate at Imperial College. In my third year, it was possible to take a module in synthetic biology. It was really the first time that anyone said, "Biology is not just a descriptive science. You can play around with it. You can build things and you can create things." So, it really stimulated us to kind of think about what we could create out of biology, out of living matter. And then out of that, when I graduated, I took part in the iGEM competition so that was back in 2009.

Kat - What's the iGEM competition? It sounds fun.

James - Well, the iGEM competition is the International Genetic Engineering Machine competition and it's this incredible organisation called the iGEM Foundation that puts it on. Every year, undergraduates from all over the world descend on Boston. They take to Boston a presentation that describes an organism that they would've built over the course of the summer. So, the undergraduates are given lab space and equipment so that they can design, build, and test an organism to do a specific task.

Kat - And what was yours?

James - So in 2009, the idea was to build an organism that was able to create a drug and then could effectively turn itself into a pill. So in this case, it was a microbe that would produce an enzyme and then it would delete its own genome and grow a shell so that it could safely transport the enzyme through the stomach into the intestine.

Kat - So, that kind of enabled you to catch the bug so to speak for a synthetic biology. How did you take this forward? What's the question that you're trying to answer with the company that you've set up?

James - The question at the heart of the company which is called Lab Genius is: Can living matter be designed in a fundamentally different way to the way in which we design everyday objects around us? So, an engineer might design a table by drawing up a schematic of one or three or five tables, but the beauty of synthetic biology is that you can create designs for thousands upon thousands of different variants of a particular biological component and then you can test those simultaneously and identify designs that perform particularly well. So, it's a fundamentally different way in which you can engineer matter.

Kat - It's kind of the way that evolution does it I guess. It's kind of tweak, test, tweak, test, try, mutate.

James - It's exactly the way that evolution does it. So the only different, rather than making a series of small number of mutations over time, we make a very, very, very large number simultaneously. So, we can effectively accelerate the whole process of evolution dramatically. By controlling the conditions of selection, it's possible to screen millions upon millions of different genetic designs to find the ones that perform best.

Kat - So effectively, it's like having a massive library of different DNA instructions that people can just rifle through to find the ones that they want for the thing that they're trying to make.

James - That's exactly right. The beauty of synthetic biology is it allows you to manufacture those different DNA designs. And then once you've made those designs, you can in parallel put them into many hundreds of thousands of different microbes and then it's the microbes that each read those instructions that are encoded onto DNA and then you can screen for the different phenotypes of the microbes.

Kat - What sort of things do you think people might be interested in in rifling through your library for?

James - So in the future, people may be trying to build organisms that perform differently to the ones that we have around us today. But right now, there's a lot of emphasis going on on redesigning proteins to do functions differently. So for example, it may be the case that a pharmaceutical company who are making an antibody want to make that antibody so it binds to its target more tightly. In that case, you could use this approach for screening millions upon millions of antibodies. So, at the moment, the real application area for this technology is to fine-tune proteins to get them to do exactly what you want them to do.

Kat - Overall, synthetic biology seems like an incredibly powerful technique that's relatively simple to start using but has enormous numbers of potential applications. How exciting does it feel to be part of this and at the beginning really of the journey here?

James - It feels absolutely incredible. Just the ability to sit down at the computer and to write an algorithm that will design millions of sequences, all of those sequences, assemble them and be testing them within a week. It's just absolutely incredible to do.

Kat - And presumably, not needing millions and millions of pounds and an enormous company and an enormous factory to do it.

James - Right, exactly. The beauty is that evolution has built all of the machinery that you require to do synthetic biology. It's just the synthetic DNA that was the last component that was missing and now, we have access to that.

Kat - So say, if I came to your library and I found a piece of DNA that built exactly the molecule I wanted to build, how could I go about testing it? Could I do it in my garage? What would I need to do next?

James - Well, up until now, the barrier to entry to anyone who wants to perform a synthetic biology experiment has been relatively high although that's all changing. So, whilst you can code up your DNA sequence on the computer, you can now also have it built and tested in the Cloud. So, there are a number of companies called Cloud Labs where you're able to send them you're able to send them your DNA sequence, made even virtually just a string of letters and also, the certain experiments that you want conducted and it will all be done remotely.

Kat - Could anyone do this? I'm sitting at home in my flat in East London and I think, "I wonder if I could design something that would do this?"

James - So, you could certainly design it. If you wanted the DNA synthesised, the different companies will each have their own set of screening procedures to make sure you're not trying make anything nefarious. So, there are safeguards in place.

Kat - What sort of costs are we talking about?

James - Certainly, DNA synthesis, the price of actually making your gene has dropped dramatically over the last few years. So, you can have a gene sequence made from anything up to £500 pounds. To get it tested is often a lot more expensive. However, Cloud Labs are bringing those costs down.

Kat - It almost seems like it's turning the traditional ways of doing drug development and design and this kind of thing completely on their head and opening it right up. It's really exciting.

James - Yeah. It's creating a lot more opportunities and it's opening the field to many more players, so it's going to be really exciting to see what happens in this space over the next few years.

Kat - It seems like a really exciting area for people who are passionate about technology that could potentially really make a difference in this world.

James - And that's the beauty of the field. It's completely interdisciplinary. So, whoever you are, whatever your skillset, you can bring value to the field of synthetic biology.

Kat - James Field from the company LabGenius, based at Imperial College's synthetic biology hub.

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