Keith Pardee and Quinn Matthews

A national team of scientists is calling for a synthetic biology strategy to advance Canada’s knowledge-based economy, create high-quality jobs and fuel multi-sector post-pandemic economic recovery.

“Engineered biological systems present an incredible economic opportunity across industrial sectors, including health and agriculture, and it will create cutting-edge jobs as these technologies are adopted across the globe,” said Keith Pardee, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology in Human Health.

Engineering biology — also known as synthetic biology — is a platform technology that applies engineering principles to biological systems while leveraging genomics, molecular biosciences, computing, automation, miniaturization and artificial intelligence (AI). It supports innovative approaches to build new biological systems or redesign existing ones with useful, value-added purposes.

“In essence, it uses living things to make useful stuff,” wrote the National Engineering Biology Steering Committee in their recent paper, Engineering Biology– A platform technology to fuel multi-sector economic recovery and modernize bio-manufacturing in Canada. The initiative is supported by Ontario Genomics.

Engineering biology tools and technologies are disrupting global markets and creating incredible opportunities for the most innovative organizations. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the "bio-revolution" promises to generate US$2-$4 trillion in global value between 2030 and 2040. Leading G20 jurisdictions, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China, as well as Singapore, are investing in engineering biology and reaping benefits both economically and in the COVID-19 response.

Committee members — including Professors Pardee and Krishna Mahadevan from U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering — explain that the paper aims to build scientific momentum and federal support for a national network to connect individuals and labs across Canada. They explain Canada has a great reputation for fundamental sciences with individual labs punching above their weight class, but it’s behind other countries in terms of spending and lacks a national strategy.

“Now is the time for governments to consider engineering biology investment, not only for its pandemic response potential in terms of rapid testing and vaccines, but also as we think about post-pandemic economic recovery. This translational field will create high quality jobs,” said Pardee.

The committee explained that Canada can capitalize on existing industry capacity, align academic expertise, and lead in the following three pillars:

  • Low-carbon manufacturing: Expanding engineering biology applications in low-carbon industrial biotechnology will rejuvenate industries and protect jobs, “green” the economy by reducing GHG emissions and waste, move towards carbon neutrality, all while growing Canadian global competitiveness in this important export sector.
  • Food security: Expanding Canada’s status as agricultural innovators and one of the leading exporters of sustainable agricultural and agri-food products and strengthening its leadership in plant-based and alternative proteins through engineering biology technology.
  • Advanced Engineering Health Technologies: Expanding Canada’s expertise in developing and manufacturing advanced diagnostics, vaccines, and biologics will help revitalize Canada’s life sciences industry and make healthcare more effective while fighting the current pandemic, fueling economic recovery, and preparing for future disease outbreaks.

The committee believes that U of T will play a significant role in building Canada’s engineering biology community by facilitating the discovery-to-commercialization pipeline across sectors, incubating innovative start-ups, and recruiting future leaders to push the field forward.

One future leader is Quinn Matthews, a Master of Science candidate working in Pardee’s lab on engineering biology projects to improve health care accessibility and refine personalized cellular therapies.

“Synthetic biologists believe nature has provided us with a treasure trove of evolutionarily-sculpted, highly-efficient natural systems that we can tweak to build useful tools – almost like a giant biological Lego kit,” said Matthews.

Matthews recognizes that he’s working on fertile ground at U of T, rich with cross-disciplinary collaborations.

“At U of T, it’s not uncommon to see a mechanical engineer, a biologist, and a chemist all standing around a laboratory bench working through a complex real-life research problem. I know this because I am that biologist! This collaborative ‘esprit de corps’ of U of T researchers along with state-of-the-art infrastructure make U of T researchers and graduates skilled synthetic biologists,” said Matthews.

According to Pardee, by nurturing the seeds of engineering biology — including bright young researchers like Matthews — Canada will be better positioned to drive sustainable bio-based pandemic and economic recovery.

“Ultimately, engineering biology will support sustainability across sectors by reducing reliance on fossil fuels, improving animal welfare and resource management, and increasing food security,” said Pardee.

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