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Health, climate and endangered species to benefit from synthetic biology

February 13, 2023

Tāmaki Makaurau – The future benefits of synthetic biology to New Zealand will be a key topic at the life sciences summit in Wellington on March 22 and 23, BioTechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion says.

Synthetic biology modifies or creates new organisms that can be designed to produce beneficial outputs such as drugs to benefit our health, as well as chemicals, fuels, and renewable biomass materials that circumvent the use of non-renewable fossil fuels, she says.

“Efforts are underway using synthetic biology to protect and restore species diversity by conserving endangered species, restoring extinct species and controlling invasive species. Synthetic biologists can also help protect biodiversity by making crops and animals more disease-resistant.”

Professor Emily Parker of Victoria University of Wellington will speak at the summit about accessing bioactives using synthetic biology.

Synthetic biologists are harnessing the power of natural systems which have gone through billions of years of optimisation to function as they do today, Dr Champion says.

“We are driven to understand how organisms make natural products that we can use. If we look closely, we find that organisms make natural products using cellular assembly lines known as biosynthetic pathways.

“At each step in the assembly line a worker, known as an enzyme, takes a chemical compound and adds or removes something from it. These enzymes work together to sculpt natural products into their final forms that we can use as medicines, fuels, foods and materials.

“Professor Parker is looking to use natural products for veterinary applications such as treating fleas and ticks on pets, agrochemicals to protect crops and pharmaceuticals such as anti-cancer agents and antibiotics.”

“New Zealand companies are constantly looking for a sustainable competitive advantage. This could be answered using modern synthetic biology tools because the barriers to entry are lower.

“This type of research is very different from the classic discovery research where people file broad patents. We need to finally accept genetic modification (GM) products in a world of climate change and desperate global food needs.

“The risk is that the biotechnology will be lost on New Zealand, at a time plant-based food and stem cell meat is seeking huge demand. We need to start looking at changing old regulations so we can use new technologies.”

Among the summit speakers is Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, the prime minister’s chief science advisor, kaitohutohu mātanga pūtaiao matua ki te pirimia.

Dr Champion says leading New Zealand companies, which are using biotech research to help developments in medicine, new plant cultivars, alternative proteins, and sustainable practices, will be among those attending the summit.

They include Auckland’s Aroa Biosurgery, biotech company which is turning tripe from sheep stomachs to create high-tech soft tissue healing products,  unlocking regenerative healing for everyone, she says.

Other Kiwi firms taking part are Agrisea which is working collaboratively with Scion, combining indigenous knowledge and biotech, to develop novel seaweed hydrogels to create a high-value and sustainable seaweed industry in Aotearoa.

For further information contact Dr Zahra Champion on 021 899 732 or NZTech’s media specialist, Make Lemonade editor-in-chief Kip Brook on 0275 030188

BioTechNZ Our aim is to raise awareness and increase the understanding to enable our nation to embrace the best opportunities biotech offers to us daily, helping us live better, healthier and more productive lives.