Sonia Jassi, Drug Discovery and Synthetic Biology Lead at Automata, examines how gene editing production could be scaled up for the benefit of UK labs.
The UK government is in discussion around a new bill which may allow genetically edited plants and animals to be grown for food in the UK. But is the bio synthetic industry prepared for this innovative science to be scaled for wider application?
Gene editing has huge potential to support the UK’s sustainability targets and encourage people to be more aware of the foods we eat. UK scientists have the power to help farmers and food producers to develop plants and animals with beneficial traits – like crops that are more resistant to diseases and require fewer pesticides.
With between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of all crops grown being lost to pests and diseases, this would be huge step forwards for the resilience of crop production, and could help the UK agriculture industry boost productivity.
If the bill is passed, there will be opportunities to go beyond looking at what we eat with genetically edited food and start to explore different materials for clothing for example. In fact, companies are already developing innovative solutions like synthetic clothing dyes and vegan leather made from mushrooms.
Scale is critical if these opportunities are to become a reality. But there are currently a number of challenges that the industry faces.
A lack of regulation
The first challenge is around regulation, especially in cultured meat and plants. Currently the EU’s rules around gene editing focuses on legal interpretation rather than science – which has restricted the UK’s agricultural research institutions from carrying out research. This is because it can be a challenge for organisations to know if the right regulatory framework is in place for research and development (R&D) where easy growing and mass production of cells is required – especially when they need to be tested with humans.
If passed, this bill will provide the beginning of more structured regulatory framework that will support the growth of precision bred plants and animals and potentially attract investment into agri-food innovation in the UK.
However, there is still the challenge of being able to scale production to a level that will make these products widely available across the UK and allow us to reap the full benefits of gene editing.
Scaling production with automation
In order for the synthetic plants and meat industry to develop and grow, organisations need to be able to deliver products to market at scale. However, the environment that cells grow in requires very high levels of accuracy, with reproducibility and close control being critical parts of the process. This means enabling mass production is a challenge, as human error and contamination are both a risk when throughput needs to be increased.
This is where automation and robotics can play an important role. Scientists are talented, skilled individuals, but it can be impossible to manually keep up with both the pace and quality needed to scale development. With automation, it’s possible to run assays faster and for longer than scientists can, by using remote management to run assays through the night for example. This increases throughput and allows scientists to carry out R&D in other areas.
With automation, scientists can also be more confident in the accuracy of their results and draw conclusions faster. Automated processes do the same thing, the same way with the same results, and developments to cell growth and editing can be made with certainty that all other variables are controlled.
Leading cell culture companies are looking to distribute novel products to market at pace, and automation can be a powerful tool to bring a product from R&D to mass production faster, giving companies a competitive edge.
Another challenge to scaling genetically edited products is the culture change required to embrace automation. While automation is often used at the R&D stage of projects, applying it to more areas and using it to scale production may be new to many organisations and teams – and a mindset that embracing change and evolution in the lab space is critical.
One way to address this is with a focus on training for lab scientists, to help them understand the benefits of automating processes. It’s also important to start small, encourage uptake of new technology and then expand – rather than transforming an entire lab overnight. This is where modular automation systems can be useful – as they can be scaled up – or down – where required in a lab, both to meet demand from scientists and to match the physical space and layout.
While this bill is still under debate, automation has an important role to play in the scaling of gene editing for any purposes – and will be critical for labs to have confidence in a flexible and agile production model while maintaining the control and accuracy required to grow cells. By focusing on automating workflows and removing the burden of repetitive tasks for scientists, UK labs could be well placed to drive forward a new era of synthetic biology innovation to market.