Getting clear on the value proposition for a sugar industry using synthetic biology
This drive to explore and innovate, with open minds, was the basis for the CSIRO Synthetic Biology Supporting a Thriving Sugar Sector Workshop on the 20th May 2021. The hybrid face-to-face and online symposium was led by CSIRO social scientists Dr Aditi Mankad (Maximising Impact Application Domain Leader with the Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform) and Dr Andrea Walton with substantial input from a range of industry leaders.
Industry representatives, researchers and other contributors shared knowledge and ideas and session facilitators helped the group come up with key themes and priorities for the future.
Sharing knowledge and ideas: industry and research leaders
To kick the day off, Dr Claudia Vickers (Director of the CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform) and Matt Gardner from the California Biomanufacturing Center in the USA spoke to participants. They talked about the current state of synthetic biology (SynBio) technology, its possibilities, and some of the manufacturing capabilities and products currently using this technology.
Six speakers from the sugar cane value chain (sugar mills, researchers, growers and government) discussed the current and future opportunities and challenges they face economically, socially and across their organisations:
- Julia Playford (Queensland Department of Environment & Science) spoke about a government perspective of the sector. Julia set the scene, and analysed gaps and blockers.
- David Rynne (Australian Sugar Milling Council) presented on the horizon ahead for sugar mills. He covered opportunities, considerations and challenges from technological advancements.
- Harjeet Khanna (Sugar Research Australia) talked about the horizon ahead for sugar research.
- Burn Ashburner (Canegrowers Australia) spoke about the horizon ahead for Canegrowers.
- Dr Walter Okelo (CSIRO) talked about tech-economic opportunities and challenges from a synthetic biology future including how SynBio could be part of a circular economy.
- Dr Aditi Mankad (CSIRO) talked about social acceptance factors of future innovations. She covered the social, ethical and economic considerations from the Australian public towards SynBio technology.
Takeaways from these presentations
- Synthetic biology can be applied in many industries and sectors including industrial chemicals, textiles, food, agriculture, health, medicine, biocontrol and environmental remediation and conservation.
- Sugar is the key feedstock for many synthetic biology fermentation processes and facilities. This presents exciting and potentially boundless opportunities for the sugarcane industry to diversify their portfolio but there are many aspects to explore.
- There is already significant global interest and considerably more investment in this branch of technology and further growth is expected in the coming years. Companies and governments have started to understand the possibilities for synthetic biology and precision bioengineering in replacing proteins, materials and chemicals with improved attributes. Some examples of novel attributes gained through synthetic biology processes include: increased sustainability in production; reduced toxicity for animals and humans; and substitution of animal-derived proteins with alternative proteins.
- A lot more research and engagement is needed to understand the social and techno-economic drivers for technologies that utilise sugar feedstocks for new, high-value products as well as the opportunities for improved environmental sustainability and sugar crop improvements. This work needs to explore aspects such as real and perceived costs, benefits, risks, and uncertainties, as well as consideration of technology readiness timeframes.
Facilitated discussions exploring key questions
In the afternoon, participants broke into groups to discuss their perspectives. Key questions were asked to frame these discussions:
- What are the possible opportunities that can occur across the sector with the adoption of SynBio technology?
- What challenges/hurdles might be faced if SynBio technology is adopted?
- What can enable SynBio development to be fast-tracked and what might stall it?
Participants shared their views on the requirements, potential blockers and lessons learned through other technology adoption experiences. They then helped develop priorities for moving forward.
According to Dr Mankad, the results from the workshop were powerful and extremely informative for industry, government and researchers.
“Representatives from the sugar cane value chain told us that they are navigating the tension between embracing new technology, and all the different opportunities that it can present, with the commercial risks and complexities that disruptive change might bring,” said Dr Mankad.
“There was a lot of discussion about how synthetic biology technology might help the industry diversify and grow new sources of revenue and how it might help to address some of the environmental issues. And a clear message was that: it is essential for all members in the supply chain to realise benefits from diversification,” she said.
The key goals of the workshop were to:
- offer participants a deeper understanding of Synbio technology
- explore potential impacts (positive and negative) from implementing SynBio solutions
- spark or strengthen collaborative relationships.
Participants were asked to prioritise what should be done next and by who. Clear messages emerged, according to Dr Vickers.
“We know that we need to do more work to understand the value propositions from this technology. Without de-risking the investment and adoption of the new technology, progress will be slower than it otherwise might be,” said Dr Vickers.
“None of this can work in a R&D bubble. SynBio technology and products can only establish in Australia with business and industry, community, all levels of government, investors and key international partners playing a role.
“Creating a proof-of-concept project together with a financial feasibility study emerged as a clear priority among the workshop attendees. The Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform will continue to engage with participants, and others in the industry, to understand key needs and be part of a collective vision,” she said.
Thank you to all attendees for sharing your views, questions and ideas.
Interested in finding out more about the synthetic biology work in the sugar industry or other sectors?
Other resources and links
- Biosecurity & Biotechnology Research Team within the Adaptive Communities & Industries Research Group at CSIRO. The team works on projects involving the management of biosecurity threats to agriculture using traditional biosecurity methods, as well as classical and novel biocontrol approaches. Research activities include: risk and vulnerability analyses, economic prioritisation, public attitudes, and behaviour change. The team develops novel social and economic tools, models, and frameworks for managing biological hazards to the ecosystem across different levels of decision making.
- Resources & Communities Research Team within the Adaptive Communities & Industries Research Group at CSIRO. The team provides robust scientific evidence on the social and economic effects of industry changes and transitions in regional Australia. The team undertakes research across a range of domains including energy, mining, agriculture, water, waste, and resource recovery, with special skills in contested industries.
- CSIRO BioFoundry: a state-of-the-art facility providing bioengineering capability to the R&D community and industry.
- Land and Water Business Unit, CSIRO.
Author: Claire Harris