Synthetic biology moves us from reading to writing DNA, allowing us to design biological systems from scratch for any number of applications. Its capabilities are becoming clearer, its first products and processes emerging. Synthetic biology’s reach already extends from reducing our dependence on oil to transforming how we develop medicines and food crops. It is being heralded as the next big thing; whether it fulfils that expectation remains to be seen. It will require collaboration and multi-disciplinary approaches to development, application and regulation. Interesting times ahead!

What is changing?

Synthetic biology brings together biological sciences, computer modelling and engineering to design and create new biological parts, devices, and systems and to re-design existing, natural biological systems with new capabilities for useful purposes. It has already been heralded as ‘the next big thing’ and its potential impact likened to that of computing in terms of scale and changing how we do things.

Synthetic biology has been heralded as ‘the next big thing’- its potential impact likened to that of computing in terms of changing how we do things

Although synthetic biology is still a relatively new field, only about ten years old, its capabilities and achievements are growing and its visibility is rising. Its potential to deliver is emerging. Recent developments include:

  • A new way of producing artemisinin, an existing anti-malarial drug, is coming on stream, using yeast in a vat rather than extracts from the leaves of wormwood
  • Scientists have demonstrated proof of concept of ‘biological factories’, which could be scaled up to mass produce off-the-shelf components and so lead to more sophisticated processes, much in the same way a car manufacturer might scale up to make parts
  • Researchers have reduced the time needed to develop a possible vaccine against the new H7N9 virus, which may be more of a threat than SARS or H5N1, by designing ‘seed strains’ based on code sent over the internet
  • A group of undergraduate students recently created a bacterium, Auxin, that may help plants grow under severe desert conditions
  • NASA is exploring ‘bug boxes’ and ‘biobricks’ which will enable expeditions to Mars, or other planets, to ‘grow’ the materials they need for constructing shelters as well as food, while also reducing freight loads en route
  • Garage biology and open-source movements are emerging to share components and processes, and challenge the current giants.

As with computing and electronics, the range of possible applications is enormous, and so therefore is its market potential. Currently valued at $1 billion worldwide, the market for products and equipment based on synthetic biology is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016 – the vast majority of that for products. However, to put that into perspective, biotechnology revenues in 2010 were in the region of $300 billion.

Why is this important?

Synthetic biology’s potential is emerging in many sectors, for example:

  • Energy – we could radically reduce our dependence on oil and oil based products with more effective bio-fuels, synthetic fuels, or cost effective routes to producing hydrogen
  • Food and agriculture – crops with new characteristics, more effective pest control and less use of pesticides and fertilisers
  • Environmental protection – improved capabilities to monitor biological conditions, and restore damage, possibly, some would argue, the ‘end of extinction’
  • Human health – new ways to create medicines and vaccines, new devices for identifying tumours, monitoring human health or targeting treatments

However, as with all new technologies, there are concerns, potential risks and significant externalities: corporate ownership of biological processes; inadvertent – or more worrying deliberate – release of untested organisms; loss of income and livelihood for farmers of natural products which are replaced; increased complexity of agricultural systems. The dangers of hype and oversell, misrepresentation and overreaction, fear and risk aversion will all add to the mix as the much needed debate grows and regulation emerges.

As with all major changes, balancing the rewards and the risks, ensuring the one while minimising the other will be the key to success. Companies in any number of fields will need to assess the impacts flowing from synthetic biology; researchers will need to find new ways to collaborate to work in very multi-disciplinary ways; policy makers and regulators will need to learn the lessons of previous developments to consult, educate and enable us all to benefit from this emerging field.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.

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