The road to development of low-cost and globally accessible resources for cell-free DNA programming.

The field of Synthetic Biology is introducing formal engineering approaches that underpin a wide range of practical challenges in modern biology. It is providing low-cost, breakthrough tools and technologies such as (i) standardised, modular DNA parts and rapid assembly of genetic circuits for reprogramming biological systems; (ii) cell free expression systems that do not require containment, and can be freeze-dried and stored at ambient temperatures to eliminate the need for refrigeration and avoid the costs, resources and regulatory hurdles associated with the deployment of genetically modified organisms, and (iii) legal frameworks and repositories for the free exchange of genetic materials.

International efforts to develop open standards and protocols for DNA parts and tools provide a major impetus for technology transfer, with benefits for rapid production of vaccines and biologics, point-of-use diagnostics, field biosensors, agricultural crop improvement using non-transgenic (genome editing) tools, and harnessing biodiversity to build sustainable local bioeconomies. The field can play an important role for the future well-being and economic development of sustainable societies in all parts of the world.

While these new technologies are relatively low-cost, their adoption in low resource environments is limited by deficits in technical training, poor access to new research materials, requirement for expensive laboratory facilities, and lack of strategic partnerships with better established research institutions.

The latest generation of cell-free gene expression systems provide a low cost platform for DNA programming that avoid these limitations. Cell-free systems are (i) efficient and fast, (ii) can be distributed in lyophilised form and do not require a cold-chain, and (iii) do not include genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that require expensive containment procedures. Cell-free systems have the potential to allow radical new approaches to education and training in low resource environments.

Future plans

Biomaker aims to draw together people and resources around cell-free expression technology, design of educational materials, construction of low-cost instrumentation, curriculum development and implementation in low-resource environments. We propose to extend our existing activities to develop practical, reusable models for interdisciplinary learning in schools, universities, community labs and industry.

To do this, we will need to tackle collectively the main obstacles to development of new educational resources and research tools based on cell-free systems. These are to:
1. Facilitate the production of low-cost cell-free extracts.
2. Promote assembly and sharing of low cost instrumentation and lab equipment.
3. Produce and freely distribute technical resources for modular, customised curriculum development.
4. Build local expertise and capacity through knowledge sharing and exchange of open-source tools and materials.