SEED Conference Speaker Emily Leproust on the Unlimited Possibilities of Biological Innovation

Organized by AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering (SBE),  the 2024 Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design (SEED) Conference will be held June 24–June 27 in Atlanta, GA, USA. Covering the field from its foundations to its commercial applications, SEED’s expert-led sessions offer insights into next-generation development strategies, incorporating perspectives from research institutions and industry. Funding opportunities are available to attend this event. Reserve your spot today.

We caught up with SEED conference speaker Emily Leproust, CEO and Cofounder at Twist Bioscience, to discuss the future of synthetic biology, and what she’ll be speaking about at SEED.

What inspired you to do research in this field?

I started my journey in chemistry, first in undergrad and then in my Ph.D. program at the University of Houston, where I focused on organic chemistry and nucleic acids chemistry. After that, I spent over a decade at a large instrument and genomics company working in, and then leading, research and development. Throughout that journey, I’ve stayed focused on a core set of beliefs: I believe technology and innovation, specifically biological innovation, is the key to answering some of the world’s biggest questions. What inspires me about synthetic biology and the life sciences field in general are the seemingly unlimited possibilities that exist to use DNA to make our lives cleaner, healthier, faster, and more affordable, specifically in the areas of health, food, and materials. We now have access to routine tests that help identify cancer, new methods to make plants and food crops heartier in harsh growing conditions, and access to biologically engineered systems to make natural, non-toxic cleaning products. All of this is through the power of synthetic biology. When Twist was founded in 2013, synthetic biology wasn’t cool. We spent a lot of time working with researchers like yourselves to change that paradigm and make the field of synthetic biology a powerhouse of innovation.

How do you envision this field solving some of the challenges in engineering and society?

One area that I’m particularly interested in is the replacement of fossil fuels with biological systems, to manufacture household products. Everything we touch today comes from oil or natural gas that is extracted from the ground, and that is just unsustainable. We can do better using fermentation. We all know about fermentation. You feed sugar to yeast and you make beer, or in France, where I am from, we call it champagne. Today we can use the same cells, like yeast, bacteria and algae, and engineer them to ferment sugar or biomass to produce chemicals. Those tiny cells are the equivalent of exceptionally efficient manufacturing facilities. It’s amazing that we can make the same chemicals that are produced from oil, and you would not be able to tell the difference. This includes directly producing plastics, flavors, perfumes, sweeteners and so much more. Removing toxic chemicals from the environment and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is better for both people and the planet, and I believe that synthetic biology will get us there.

Are there any new developments, technologies, or applications of technologies in this field that you are particularly excited about?

DNA is essential to research in many different areas – from biotech and pharma, to academia, agbio, and more. Delivering faster DNA will not only grow the synthetic biology market but it could also accelerate and catalyze growth in numerous research areas across the biotechnology sector. This would also impact sustainability, ending the era of plastics and ushering in the era of proteins, using synthetic DNA to create materials currently sourced from the Earth. There is also a significant market for liquid biopsy and minimal residual disease (MRD) monitoring, and it’s projected to grow. We’re using these approaches to move away from a time when everyone was prescribed the same drug and into an era of precision and personalized medicine. Liquid biopsy can be used to identify a person’s unique form of cancer to inform the selection of the best existing therapy or to develop a personalized therapy. After treatment, MRD can be used to evaluate if a therapy is working and to test for disease recurrence. With these tools and approaches, not only is the market poised to grow, but we could also treat cancer as a chronic condition, significantly improving quality of life for people with cancer.

What is the one big takeaway that you would like audiences to gain from your talk? 

Although we’ve made enormous strides in developing bio-based systems to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer, we still have work to do. I believe DNA is at the center of that development and innovation, and I’d like to share ideas about how Twist DNA is powering the biological revolution. The ability to order DNA sequences and have them delivered in five to seven days enables myriad possibilities. I’d like the audience to think big about what they would do with an unlimited DNA synthesis capability. I will share examples of how scientists are already leveraging the power of an “unlimited DNA buffet” delivered by Twist.

We may receive funding to help sponsor some registrations for SEED 2024. U.S.-based students, post-docs, and early-career professionals are encouraged to apply for a grant

About SBE

Established in 2004, the Society for Biological Engineering is a technological community for engineers and applied scientists integrating biology with engineering. Members of SBE come from a broad spectrum of industries and disciplines and share in SBE’s mission of realizing the benefits of bioprocessing, biomedical and biomolecular applications. Learn more about SBE