The second conference on “Synthetic Biology for Natural Products” took place from 02.-05.06.2019 in Puerto Vallarta (Mexico). This year, the focus was laid on „The Interface of (Meta)Genomics, Synthetic Biology and Natural Product Discovery“. The BioSC was represented by contributions of co-workers from the IMET (HHU Düsseldorf), who presented their research within the BioSC FocusLabs „CombiCom“ and „Bio2“ in talks and poster sessions.
Guiding theme of the conference was the development of new technologies and interdisciplinary synergies that will allow the conversion of nature’s diverse natural product pathways into novel compounds and lead structures for effective drugs. In this spirit, about 80 scientists and representatives of companies came together to discuss the newest developments in the field based on over 40 talks and 20 poster presentations.
The first day was dedicated to the topic of “(Meta)Genomics-Enabled Natural Product Discovery”. The meeting was opened with a keynote lecture by Jo Handelsman (University of Wisconsin), one of the trailblazers of the metagenomics approach, who gave impressive insights on the chemical diversity of soil-dwelling microbes. In this context, computer-based tools for sequence analyses are of special importance, as was demonstrated by leading experts in the field including Nadine Ziemert (University Tübingen), Marnix Medema (Wageningen University and Research), Tillmann Weber (Technical University Denmark) und Nigel Mouncey (DOE Joint Genome Institute).
On the second day of the conference, the focus was laid on the topic „Advances in Natural Product Engineering“. One key aspect was the engineering of broadened substrate specificities in biosynthetic enzymes, which are thus enabled to build new products. Stephan Thies (HHU Düsseldorf) reported on the effective Pseudomonas putida based production of tailored biosurfactants with versatile applicability, as implemented in the BioSC FocusLab „Bio2“. Highlights in engineering enzymatic assembly lines were presented by Ikuro Abe (University of Tokyo) regarding TypeIII PKS reactions, by Michael Burkart (University of California, San Diego) with respect to combinatorial PKS/NRPS machineries, and by Hajo Kries (Leibniz-HKI) who talked about a zinc-finger-based NRPS building setup.
The third day first focused on „Trends in the Commercialization of Natural Products“. The session was opened by Richard Baltz (CognoGen Biotechnology Consulting), a longstanding expert in the engineering of Actinomycetes – both, in the context of academia and industry, who gave a keynote lecture on the discovery of new NRPS pathways. Generally, a reawakened interest of companies in the field of natural product discovery and production by means of synthetic biology became apparent, as documented by contributions from e.g. Elliot Miller (Corteva AgriScience) and Daniel Gray (Ginkgo Bioworks). In the next session, „New Tools for Capturing, Manipulating and Activating Biosynthesis Pathways“ were discussed. Especially, cloning methods like Cas9-based restriction and ligation-free DNA assembly represent key technologies in natural products research, as highlighted for example by Robert Stankey (Varigen Biosciences) or Yuriy Rebets (Saarland University). Beyond that, Michael Smanski (University of Minnesota) presented an approach for the Refactoring of fully synthetic biosynthesis gene clusters, while Anita Loeschcke (HHU Düsseldorf) demonstrated the applicability of rDNA regions in the P. putida chromosome for the integration and effective expression of such gene clusters.
On the fourth day, a session on „Natural Biosynthetic Enzyme Structure and Activity“ completed the conference. Here, Martin Schmeig (McGill University) conveyed unique insights on the level of protein structure and dynamics of NRP synthetases. In addition, Rebecca Goss (University of St. Andrews) and Oleg Tsodikov (University of Kentucky) made clear that the enzymatic halogenation of natural products is another focal point in the field.
The framework programme of the conference provided ample opportunity for an intensive dialogue to exchange viewpoints and ideas among the participants from academia and industry. Part of that were the poster sessions, during which also the BioSC-associated projects on expression tool development (Robin Weihmann), on optogenetics in natural compound production (Thomas Drepper) and on the optimisation of rhamnolipid production in Pseudomonas (Sonja Kubicki) were presented.
In summary, the conference highlighted how a cooperative interplay of multiple disciplines and areas of natural products-associated research can come together in the field of Synthetic Biology as nodal point to transfer nature’s potential of microbial or plant-derived pathways to new valuable products in a bioeconomy – already at present, and even more so in the future.