Several FABI academics participated in a recent landmark International Practical Synthetic Biology Workshop sponsored by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

Synthetic biology, or SynBio, an emerging field based on the design and construction of novel artificial biological pathways, organisms or devices, has the potential to build the Bioeconomy and address major challenges such as vaccine development, biotechnology training and innovation, and crop improvement in Africa. The latest SynBio technologies include open-source cell-free and transient expression systems that are inexpensive, easy to implement and free of regulatory hurdles compared to genetic modification. To identify and prioritise key applications of these new techniques for future research funding, SynBio-leading institutions in the United Kingdom (among them OpenPlant consortium members the University of Cambridge, John Innes Institute and the Earlham Institute) partnered with the University of Pretoria (UP), FABI and the African Centre for Gene Technologies (ACGT) to hold a strategic scoping workshop from 24-27 February 2017 in South Africa representing key stakeholders in southern, east and west Africa.

The workshop was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a UK Research Council with funds of £1.5bn (R24 billion) dedicated to challenge‐driven research support in developing countries in the next five years. UP was chosen as the hosting institution given its promotion of SynBio innovation, in part through participation in the 2015 and 2016 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition in Boston, an initiative lead by Dr. Steven Hussey in the Department of Genetics.

The workshop began with a public symposium held on Friday 24 February in Pretoria focusing on cutting-edge open-source SynBio tools for training and bio-engineering, attended by over 100 students, government and scientific council representatives, academics and entrepreneurs from 23 institutions. Then, a task team of 28 stakeholders from the UK, Chile, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa held a focused workshop at Bakubung Lodge in Pilanesberg National Park to identify, prioritise and recommend six SynBio focus areas in Africa for future GCRF funding calls. Among them, development for vaccine and biological product production through transient expression in tobacco plants, capacity building and training through the establishment of local production facilities for biological products and consumables, and the deployment of custom cell-free expression systems for maker-space training and secondary to tertiary education programmes were high-priority applications of SynBio tools recommended by the task team.

In addition to promoting the accelerated development of the African Bioeconomy, the workshop established new synergistic partnerships for translational research between African institutions, among them integration and alignment with UP’s Future Africa initiative. The preparation of a white paper will follow the submission of a workshop report to the GCRF. The event was co-organised and facilitated by Prof. Jim Haseloff and Dr. Jenny Molloy (University of Cambridge), Dr. Steven Hussey (University of Pretoria - FABI) and Dr. John Becker (African Centre for Gene Technologies). Other FABI participants included Prof. Zander Myburg, Prof. Bernard Slippers and Dr. Eshchar Mizrachi.

Photo captions:

Top: Participants and attendees of the Symposium on Bioengineering for African Challenges, Friday 24 February, Encore Complex, Hatfield.

Bottom: Participants of the strategic workshop on Practical Synthetic Biology held on 25-27 February 2017 at Bakubung Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park.