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AMBS partners with Zymergen at leading US science conference

Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) is co-organising a session at the prestigious 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Seattle this week.

The AAAS is one of the world’s premiere international annual science gatherings, and the AMBS-led session is entitled ‘The Biological Engineering Revolution: Strategies for Sustainable Scale-up’.

The backdrop to the session is how new combinations of biology, information technology, and engineering can potentially help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and deliver more sustainable products and materials.

The symposium is exploring the development and scale-up of these new biological engineering approaches, as well as the application of these methods for creating chemicals, pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and other commodities. It is also looking at strategies to embed responsible, sustainable, and inclusive innovation in product design and deployment.

The session will share leading-edge industry, academic and laboratory perspectives on the opportunities and challenges presented by biological engineering, and speakers will discuss the growing roles of machine learning and automation in accelerating the design of new biomolecules for industry.

Engineering biology

Co-organiser of the session Philip Shapira, Professor of Innovation Management and Policy at AMBS and lead for responsible innovation with the Manchester Synthetic Biology Research Centre for Fine and Specialty Chemicals, said: “Engineering biology is rapidly expanding with many new applications and products in or about to enter the market, including in food, industrial biotechnology, and consumer sectors.

“If scaled up, these developments would have major impacts on what we consume, how we produce, and whether we can reduce our global and local environmental impacts. Yet, there are concerns and challenges related to exactly how sustainable engineering biology is, what its societal implications are, and how responsible governance should proceed.”

During the session a paper by Nicholas Matthews, a doctoral researcher at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, is being presented. The paper ‘Collaborating constructively for sustainable biotechnology’ was written in conjunction with Zymergen Inc., a leading science and material innovation company based in Emeryville, California. Dr Laurence Stamford, a lecturer in sustainable chemical engineering at The University of Manchester, and Professor Shapira are among the co-authors of the paper, which recently appeared in Scientific Reports published by Nature Research.

Power of biology

Zymergen uses biology as a source of new chemical building blocks, enabling the development of novel products and materials that are not linked to traditional petroleum-based manufacturing. They create molecules for a wide array of industries - from consumer electronics to consumer care and pharmaceuticals.

Carrie Cizauskas, Manager of Publishing and Academic Relations at Zymergen - and also a co-author of the paper with Zymergen’s Donovan S. Layton - said: “The idea behind our business is to make whatever is possible in biology, using the power of biology to find new gene combinations to make new molecules. A few years ago, we began talking to Professor Shapira and were very interested in his work in terms of all aspects of sustainability, particularly in the biotech sector. It led us to collaborate on the paper, which has given us an excellent insight into the challenges that we face as just one private company operating in a field in which the whole world has much to do to improve sustainability.”


Cizauskas also stressed the importance of automation and machine learning to their business. “We are an automation native company, which means we built our business from the start around automation. This allows us to operate on different levels of automation as needed. It can mean anything from running an academic-style laboratory with a few machines, to modular automation for high throughput applications. Ultimately, there is so much about biology that the world has not discovered yet, and automation and machine learning allow us to design and conduct thousands of experiments at the same time to discover molecules we would not be able to get to through scientific reasoning alone.”

Added Shapira: “Our collaboration with Zymergen has resulted in a pioneering paper which is among the first to develop an approach to test the sustainability claims of synthetic biology. The paper and the AAAS session represent important outcomes from the interdisciplinary and international cooperation between The University of Manchester and Zymergen.”

*Further details about the 2020 AAAS conference can be found here.