The Synthetic Biology Era is Here — How Should We View It?
We are entering an era of directed design in which we will expand the limited notion that biology is only the ‘study of life and living…
We are entering an era of directed design in which we will expand the limited notion that biology is only the ‘study of life and living things’ and see biology as the ultimate distributed, manufacturing platform (as Stanford bioengineer, Drew Endy, often says). This new mode of manufacturing will offer us unrivaled personalization and functionality.
New foods. New fuels. New materials. New drugs.
We’re already taking our first steps in this direction. Joule Unlimited has engineered bacteria to convert CO2 into fuels in a single-step, continuous process. Others are engineering yeast to produce artemisinin — a potent anti-malarial compound used by millions of people globally. Still other microbes are being reprogrammed to produce industrial ingredients, like those used in synthetic rubber.
If we look far enough, future bio-based industries will discard expensive, complicated industrial chemical syntheses that use high temperatures, high pressures and toxic catalysts in favor of cheaper, more resource-efficient and less toxic biochemical syntheses.
We will do these things, and then we will exceed them. Or at least, that’s one (perhaps shamelessly optimistic) version of the future. Alternate perspectives, both pessimistic and realistic, ought to be considered too. There are many opportunities here — billion-dollar companies to be built, billion-person problems to be solved, critical ethical debates to be discussed in public, and policy prescriptions to be scrutinized.
So, how should we view the new world of synthetic biology? Let’s take a look.
For the optimists and dreamers amongst us, it’s tempting to believe that synthetic biology will surely usher in a fantastic world of abundance.
The optimists dream of longer, healthier lives enabled by intelligent systems that diagnose our diseases before symptoms appear. They long for truly personalized medicine. They anticipate CRISPR-enabled cures for genetic diseases, cancer and beyond.
The optimists see synthetic biology as a burgeoning field with unmatched potential for human good — potential that’s only comparable to that of artificial intelligence.
The pessimists and the cautious quietly quiver at this perspective. Because we humans identify very strongly with biology, some consider ‘engineering life’ to be unnatural, unethical and arrogant.
The pessimists worry about how synthetic biology will affect our jobs, our sense of humanity and our ecosystems. They imagine a day when bio-terrorists can fabricate synthetic pathogens that can survive, multiply and cause deliberate harm to us.
The pessimists are concerned about unintended consequences . They feel that the potential for misuse and abuse is so great that the risks of synthetic biology (synbio) outweigh the benefits.
The realists sit somewhere in the middle.
They see the world-changing potential of synthetic biology, yet they are aware of the hurdles that must be overcome before the fun stuff starts happening. They may ascribe to the optimist’s portrait of the future, but they remind us that first, we need to make biology easier to engineer and program . We need to develop standards for engineering life, abstractions for biological code and better ways of sharing experimental procedures so that reliable lab results can be replicated in labs around the world.
All three agree on one thing — we are moving fast into the synbio era. They’ve formed their opinion based on this simple fact. And they’re right.
Forward Momentum Is Undeniable
Predicting the trajectory of technology is riddled with complexity, but we are seeing movement on a number of different interrelated fronts in synthetic biology.
The development of the first programming language for living cells.
The arrival of CRISPR — a game-changing tool for cheap, easy genetic manipulation.
The colossal drop in the cost of reading DNA.
The emergence of IndieBio — the world’s first biotech accelerator that’s tempting postgrads away from academia into the startup world.
The explosion of iGem — an annual global student competition where students design, build and test biological devices that do useful things like biosensors that screen drinking water for pathogens or toxic metals.
The growth of the iGem Registry — a growing catalog of standard biological parts that engineers can lean on when designing biological circuits.
The formation of BioBricks — which works to make synbio an open and collaborative science that serves the public interest.
Startups like Amino Labs and Bento Labs that are developing easy-to-use, portable, laptop-size mini-labs equipped for real science — reading DNA and culturing friendly bacteria to make perfumes.
The broad maker movement that’s causing technical disciplines — from bioengineering to programming — to be more accessible, more inviting and less mysterious to everyone.
Beyond this, the increased media attention — both the sensationalist headlines and the useful pragmatic discussions are symptomatic of the upward trajectory of this field.
Collectively, all of these trends point to a future in which synthetic biology could be truly transformative in energy, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture and beyond. But they also illustrate the fact that synthetic biology is still a young field.
This is where the realists have a point — we’re not there quite yet. And the more widely available and powerful the tech gets, the more we’ll want to sort out the rules of the road.
How hard we work today may well determine whether the future tends toward the immensely positive visions of the optimists or those scary pessimistic outcomes.
What Still Needs Doing to Make the Most of Synbio?
Here’s some of the work we still need to do.
We need to automate the process of designing and optimizing microbial strains.
We need to fully engage the public about the implications of these technologies.
We need to decide what our new relationship with biology will look like.
We need to explore which applications are acceptable and which are not.
We need to fully consider the effects certain synbio applications could have on issues like inequality and discrimination.
Like all powerful technologies, synthetic biology is inherently dual use — it can be used for human good or to threaten human safety. And because biology is involved, there is an added threat of multiplication and self-replication associated with certain biological weapons.
So yes, there is immense potential, and we should be excited about what this future might look like. And yes, we need the dreamers and the technical experts to push the boundaries of what is considered possible from a technical perspective (in a safe way). But in our quest for a better tomorrow, we must not overlook or evade the necessary ethical questions today.
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(Image credit to Jenna Bekhuis from Unsplash.com)