Synthetic biology is a relatively new field that sits at the intersection of biology and engineering, where practitioners use engineering tools and systems approaches to design novel biological systems, including genetic circuits and whole cells, with which to explore governing principles behind complex biological processes or to develop new functionality that can be exploited.

The specific objectives of the workshop are to bring together leading researchers in the field of synthetic biology to: 1. Explore and identify areas of joint interests, needs, and opportunities associated with the rapidly emerging discipline of Synthetic Biology.

2. Identify grand challenges and explore potential limits of the field from both biology and engineering perspectives. In addition, recognizing the future of science research will be increasingly transnational, this workshop seeks to establish new ties and collaborations between researchers in the United States and Germany.

Broader Impacts The workshop will contribute to the enhancement and improvement of scientific, engineering and/or educational activities by bringing together a leading group of international researchers to define the frontiers in synthetic biology. In addition, this meeting will provide the foundation for international collaborations between researchers in the US and Germany.

The meeting sponsors will produce a report of the meeting that will be distributed to the participants and sponsoring organizations (NSF and DFG) and will also be posted for the public on We will also explore publishing a meeting report in peer-reviewed journal such as ACS Synthetic Biology.

The workshop's organizers will ensure that workshop includes attendees from underrepresent groups in Science and Technology and also attendees who are at early stages of their career.

Project Report

The DFG-NSF Synthetic Biology Workshop was held May 15-16 at the BioQuant Center, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany. The organizing committee included: Roland Eils, University of Heidelberg Christopher Rao, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Herbert Sauro, University of Washington, Seattle Kai Sundmacher, Max Planck Institute, Magdeburg Christopher Voigt, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge Wilfried Weber, University of Freiburg The workshop was initiated to join the best of US and German talent in synthetic biology in grand challenges related to human health and the emerging bioeconomy. Program officers from NSF and DFG recruited the above conference organizers because of a growing recognition that some problems in synthetic biology such as standards and repositories will require multinational cooperation if efforts are going to be successful. The attendees from the US were deliberately chosen by the committee to promote up-and-coming, junior investigators in synthetic biology. Assistant professors made up the majority of attendees. Only 4/11 of the professors held a tenured faculty appointment. A variety of institutions, small and large, public and private, were represented. Reshma Shetty (Gingko Bioworks) was the sole representative from American industry. Of the American researchers, 3/12 were female which is comparable to the 24% average employment rate for females in STEM fields [1]. Keynote speakers were Ralf Wagner (University of Regensburg), Chris Voigt (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Alfred Pühler (University of Bielefeld), selected for their leadership in industry and academia. Voigt, a young yet influential researcher, was an important leader for the Americans, giving a total of three talks and suggesting research goals of common interest to the US and Germany. Representing the Germans, Roland Eils (German Cancer Research Center), a distinguished academic leader, was very proactive in discussions and made a charismatic impression on the Americans. Two grand challenges for synthetic biology emphasized in many discussions throughout the workshop were engineering microbes for industrial-scale chemical synthesis and, more generally, scaling the complexity of synthetic gene networks. Workshop participants suggested a variety of metabolic engineering approaches to enhance chemical biosynthesis in microbes, including minimal cell chasses, cell-free catalytic systems, and synthetic enzymes and enzyme-scaffolds with enhanced catalytic efficiency compared to natural enzymes. American and German researchers alike expressed enthusiasm about using microbial consortia or minimal cell-free systems for innovative bioprocess applications. These shared interests may serve as a basis for future collaborations. Synthetic biologists have had some encouraging success in creating modular toolkits of biological parts that can be assembled into increasingly complicated systems. Some of these orthogonal parts and logic circuits have since been transferred to mammalian cells, opening the door to exciting biomedical applications such as sensing and distinguishing tumor cells from healthy cells. Nevertheless, the cost and effort needed to develop these toolkits is daunting, arguing for broad collaboration to develop and share these toolkits in DNA repositories. The heuristic nature of synthetic biology also provides compelling motivation for international researchers to share their experience and resources. While theory and rational approaches can guide the design process in synthetic biology, directed evolution and screening is widely used to refine designs. Synthetic biology will continue to be a heuristic science into the foreseeable future, even while it strives to be a rigorous engineering discipline. Collaboration between experimentalists and computationalists in developing standards will also be important going forward. Supporting efforts in standards development will make synthetic biology a less heuristic and more rational engineering discipline. Experimentalists at the workshop stated that they would be more willing to support ongoing efforts to develop bioinformatics standards such as the Synthetic Biology Open Language (SBOL) if they provided an immediate benefit to their research aside from aiding in physical assembly of DNA components. The most important area in which computationalists and experimentalists should work together is linking functional characterization to sequence data. For example, cross-disciplinary collaboration is needed to develop theoretical models that will help experimentalists infer information about kinetic processes from their raw data. Synthetic biology faces societal challenges as important as the technological challenges. In Germany, there is an underlying anxiety and conservatism in German culture regarding the use of synthetic biology, and this has influenced the lines of inquiry that are open to German researchers. In contrast, the American government remains almost entirely tolerant, yet vigilant of synthetic biology. Thus, collaborating with the Americans may open opportunities to innovate that might not ordinarily be available to German researchers. In contrast, American researchers should learn to work more closely with colleagues in ethics and the humanities, following the example set by the Germans. Public awareness and acceptance of synthetic biology is an issue that professors from both the European Union and the United States felt needed improvement.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB)
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Susanne von Bodman
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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