Aims of the Biomaker initiative

The field of Synthetic Biology is introducing low-cost, breakthrough technologies for a wide range of practical challenges including diagnostics, environmental conservation, microbial bioproduction, crop improvement and human health. These are of critical importance to the future well-being and economic development of sustainable societies across the planet.

Synthetic Biology is adopting technical engineering approaches for the reprogramming of biological systems. These include:
(i) The introduction of standardised, modular DNA parts and new methods for rapid assembly of synthetic genetic circuits. 
(ii) Generation of legal frameworks, repositories and open source technologies for the free exchange of genetic components.
(iii) Production of simple, DNA-programmable cell free expression systems that can be freeze-dried, shipped and stored without refrigeration. These are GMO-free and can be used in the field or classroom without expensive facilities or elaborate containment.
(iv) Systems for transient gene expression in contained hosts, and transgene-free genome editing to avoid the costs, resources and regulatory hurdles associated with the deployment of genetically modified organisms.

These new technologies are relatively low-cost, but their adoption is often limited by deficits in technical training, poor access to new research materials, inadequate laboratory facilities, and lack of strategic partnerships with leading research institutions. We aim to develop tools for improved synthetic biology training in schools, universities, community labs and industry. We believe that efforts to develop open standards and protocols for DNA parts and low-cost DIY tools will provide a major impetus for democratisation of this new technology, and facile transfer from richer to poorer countries.

The Biomaker initiative funds small-scale projects at the intersection of the new biology and other sciences, in order to engineer low-cost tools, real-world applications and explore policy development. 

Our two main aims are:

1. To encourage interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations and promote wider exchange of skills and innovation.

2. To generate open, low-cost tools and methods that can be used for training and technology transfer worldwide.

Biotechnology is fertile ground for international exchange, and capacity-building based on open technologies and exchange should be a major component of any funding initiative. Synthetic biology can provide better solutions for: (i) rapid-response production of vaccines and biologics, (ii) point-of-use diagnostics and field biosensors, (iii) agricultural crop improvement using non-transgenic (genome editing) tools, and (iv) harnessing local biodiversity to build a sustainable bioeconomy.

In each of these applications, the development of practical solutions and social impact requires: Shared curricula for training and biotechnology education in resource-poor communities and institutes; Building local expertise through exchange and shared knowledge; and Establishing in-country facilities for generation and exchange of open-source tools and materials.

Starter kits for building biology

The Biomaker programme has been funded from a variety of sources, starting with £90K support for mini-projects by a Strategic Research Initiative for Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge (http://www.synbio.cam.ac.uk). This was followed by £500K support from the BBSRC/EPSRC OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre (https://www.openplant.org). These allowed the creation of new interdisciplinary team projects across Cambridge and Norwich with £5000 of seed funding each. Every six months, a call is launched for innovative projects that will bring new people and ideas together. Teams are required to make a short application for funding up to £4000, for a project that must lead to tangible, publicly documented and open outcomes, which could include (but are not limited to): design files and prototype for a hardware project, software development and documentation, a white paper arising from a workshop, (iv) educational resource or synthesis and sharing of useful DNA parts or vectors. We look for short-term project that might be completed in a roughly six-month period. 

The teams are usually made up of graduate students or postdoctoral workers, but have included undergraduate teams and faculty. They must have agreement from their supervisor and institutional cost-code holder that the proposed project and management of the allocated funding will fit with their existing work. The teams must pitch their idea to their peers and a team of judges. The projects are ranked, evaluated for the prospect of tangible outcomes that can be readily shared, promotion of interdisciplinary working and exchange, relevance to synthetic biology, open technologies and responsible innovation, realistic scope for timing, costing and the proposed team, and evidence for any external collaborations and matching support.

A working budget of up to £4000 is provided immediately for successful teams. Teams are expected to publicly document and make available the outcomes from their project. Team members are encouraged to get involved in a network of support activities, such as the Biomakespace, Science Makers, Café Synthetique, and termly SynBio Forums.  Projects are reviewed after six months (with some allowance for delay due to unexpected circumstances), and a further £1000 is awarded for follow-on and outreach, if the project is adequately and openly documented online.

To date, we have funded around 60 of these mini-projects, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes for interdisciplinary collaboration, sharing and propagation of research tools and training, and production of open tools for innovation. We have found that the development of bioinstrumentation is an efficient way of promoting cross-over between biology and the physical sciences, computing and engineering. In 2017 we are developing a new model, the Biomaker Challenge, to provide a lower cost and more portable way of expanding this programme.

The Biomaker Challenge is based on a £250 Starter Kit for bioinstrumentation, which is designed to allow biologists, who might be unfamiliar with electronics and programming, to collaborate share trading with scientists and engineers, who have little experience with biological systems. The Starter Kit is based on simple, open Arduino technology and resources (http://www.arduino.cc), and includes training resources that require no prior knowledge of the system. At the other end of the spectrum, the Starter Kit includes a comprehensive prototyping environment and a 4D Systems programmable touchscreen for the creation of sophisticated portable user interfaces and displays. We are also providing each team with a budget of up to £750 for additional components, 3D printing and other materials. The teams will have the entire summer to develop their devices, will document these on Github, and come together as part of a public exhibition of open technology, the Biomaker Fayre in Cambridge on Saturday, October 21st, 2017. 

Support for the Biomaker Challenge is in Cambridge and Norwich is provided by the BBSRC/EPSRC OpenPlant Synthetic Biology Research Centre and the University of Cambridge Research Policy Committee through the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative and CamBridgeSens Strategic Research Network, with additional support from industrial partners. We hope that this streamlined model for developing interdisciplinary exchange will be of wider interest, and we looking for ways to develop international collaborations. We believe that this model provides new opportunities to develop and share low-cost tools for biological research and teaching.

Cell-free biology

Synthetic biology approaches can be applied to solve problems in diverse areas such as diagnostics and bioproduction, and underpin wider efforts to develop sustainable biotechnologies for the global bioeconomy. However, the lack of underlying infrastructure in the low-resource environments of many African and Latin American countries means that maintaining a typical molecular biology laboratory is fraught with challenges. There is an important need for low-cost materials and resources for research and the teaching of applied sciences such as biotechnology,

For practical training in synthetic biology in low-resource schools and universities to succeed, and to stimulate the establishment of bio-maker spaces to facilitate informal education and innovation, there is a requirement for non-GM, rapid, cheap and safe materials.  Lyophilised cell-free expression systems can be used for the development and optimization of synthetic gene networks. They have already been leveraged for the rapid screening of gene constructs and the application of the paper-based platforms for programmable in vitro diagnostics of human pathogens, and can be coupled to the growing capability of cheap microfluidics. This technology has the potential to overcome the bio-containment issues inherent with the use of live cells. As a consequence, deploying tools outside of the laboratory environment (e.g. point-of-use biosensors for diagnostic applications) is more likely with cell-free systems with their vastly reduced regulatory burden and cost. Cell-free applications are therefore more likely than cell-based systems to achieve educational and social impact in the short to medium term.  The avoidance of living cells also makes cell-free systems particularly well adapted to education in low-resource environment, where cell extracts and reagents can be stabilized for storage at ambient temperatures, negating the need for cryostorage and reliable electricity supply that are required for living cells. They provide effective and affordable systems for implementation in training and education programs fashioned after project-based learning models, like the Biomaker Challenge.

OpenPlant and the Global Challenges Research Fund are sponsoring international collaboration in this area - with a particular interest in making cell-free systems more accessible for interdisciplinary research. Summer 2017 will see the convening of a Forum and Workshop focused on the development of freeze-dried cell-free reagents and low-cost instrumentation for teaching and research in schools and universities (https://www.openplant.org/openplant-forum-2017). 

Development of low-cost and modular curriculum materials

The field of Synthetic Biology has pioneered the adoption of standardised and modular approaches to reprogramming biological systems. We believe that the combination of commodity electronics and optics with cell-free biological systems will enable radically different approaches to the teaching of this "new biology", and will allow the development of a new generation of curriculum materials for project-based learning, that are both cheap and highly accessible for students who might otherwise be excluded from engaging with this topic. We believe that efforts like the Biomaker Challenge are needed to underpin interdisciplinary innovation that will be at the heart of the biology-based sustainable technologies of the coming century - and to facilitate and democratise global access to innovation in the bioeconomy.