Rapid advances in biological engineering are poised to dramatically impact the economy. Significant improvements in key technologies used to study and manipulate biological systems at the molecular level—in particular, tools for sequencing and synthesizing DNA—are opening the door to a new era of genome engineering and design. “Genome Synthesis and Design Futures,” recently published by Bio Economic Research Associates, examines ways in which these advances in technology could affect the U.S. economy over the next two decades.
The report assesses the rate of improvement in the performance of key biological technologies and evaluates the potential implications based on analogies to the development of other major technology systems. New approaches to biological engineering are recapitulating developmental stages and pathways experienced in other fields, including aviation, industrial engineering, automotive design, and computer software. Major technological and market trends include the following:
• Productivity of DNA-sequencing tools increased more than 500-fold over the past decade, doubling every 24 months. Costs, on the other hand, declined by more than three orders of magnitude from $1.00 per base pair to less than $0.001 per base pair.
• Productivity of DNA-synthesis methods increased 700-fold over the past decade, doubling every 12 months. Again, costs fell from approximately $30 per base pair to less than $1 per base pair.
• The global market for DNA sequencing technology and services exceeded $7 billion in 2006. The market for synthesis reagents and services reached nearly $1 billion.
We analyze these developments in the context of historical patterns of technology development in the economy. From an economic perspective, the real impact of technology revolutions often lags by several decades behind the emergence of fundamental enabling techniques. The macroeconomic effects of technology revolutions—often measured in terms of productivity improvements or effects on balance of trade—appear late in the cycle of buildout and diffusion.
If new approaches to biological engineering are successful in creating systems of easily combined biological parts, the potential for serial innovation and a rapid development of useful tools is high. However, the ensuing buildout of biological technology will require overcoming formidable technical challenges.
We explore three industry segments in the vanguard of applying these emerging technologies:
• In the chemical sector, increasingly powerful tools and methods for metabolic pathway engineering could open the door to production of a wide variety of chemical products. New technologies could enable the penetration rate for biological production processes to reach 15–20% of the global chemicals industry by 2015.
• Genome engineering and design methods also promise to play important roles in the development of new energy production and conversion methods. The near-term contributions from these technologies are likely to be significant in accelerating the growth of the liquid biofuels industry that could increase from $22 billion in revenues globally in 2006 to as much as $150 billion by 2020.
• Synthetic vaccines could soon account for as much as one-third the global vaccine market.
Looking ahead, ongoing performance improvements are likely to deliver significant further increases in productivity and reductions in cost over the next decade. Intensifying global competition among companies and countries, coupled with abundant innovation, is driving the rapid diffusion of new technology.
Combinatorial engineering approaches that have transformed the fields of electrical engineering and software design are now being leveraged to accelerate biological engineering. These methods are being utilized to produce high-value products for a variety of commercial purposes, and the range of potential applications is huge.
However, the continuing buildout of these technologies will be shaped in large measure by an array of outstanding legal, ethical, economic, social, regulatory, and political questions and issues that have yet to be resolved.