Nancy J. Kelley, J.D.
David J. Whelan
Ellyn Kerr
Aidan Apel
Robyn Beliveau
Rachael Scanlon

A look at synthetic biology markets, needs, and applications.


Synthetic biology—the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and the redesign of natural biological systems for useful purposes—opens the richness of biological diversity to solve pressing, real-world problems for humanity and the planet: precisely targeted, personalized medicines; energy-rich molecules for sustainable fuels and industrial chemicals; remediation of polluted environments; and food supplies to meet an explosively growing global population.1 Still, we are far from capitalizing on synthetic biology's fullest potential—a promise that also poses great ethical questions and risks. This places a critical onus on researchers, policymakers, regulatory bodies, industry, and all citizen stakeholders to engage in an intelligent dialogue about how to advance synthetic biology not only to sustain but also to enhance life on Earth.

With an expected global market of $10.8 billion by 2016, synthetic biology will play an important role in the bioeconomy with powerful implications for future US competitiveness and employment.2 The US currently leads the world in intellectual conception, research, and commercial development in this field.2,3 But in both industry and research in the US and worldwide, synthetic biology is hampered by a lack of standardized fundamental tools, inadequate regulatory policy, a need for both substantial public and private investment, and lack of education of stakeholders about its risks and benefits.

This Industry Report includes key findings and excerpts from the report “Synberc Sustainability Initiative: Initial Findings & Recommendations,” prepared by Nancy J. Kelley & Associates, February 2014, co-funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Synberc. The full report is available at The information and views contained in this document are those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of Industrial Biotechnology, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers, or their affiliates. Furthermore, none of the above organizations or companies, nor any persons acting on their behalf, is responsible for the use that might be made of the information contained in this publication.

This report reviews the development of synthetic biology from a historical perspective, within a global landscape of regulatory frameworks, funding initiatives, and social and ethical aspects. The full version of this report was prepared as part of a 1-year independent initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Synberc.4 Much foundational research is yet needed, as well as supportive policy and sufficient financial investment, if the US is to maintain and grow its leadership position in this field it has pioneered.

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Nancy J. Kelley, J.D. ([email protected]), was the Founding Executive Director of the New York Genome Center. David J. Whelan served as Senior Vice President, Business Development and Chief Strategy Officer for the New York Genome Center. Additional members of the Nancy J. Kelley & Associates team also contributed to this report.

1 Synthetic biology community. Available at (Last accessed December 2013).
2 BCC Research. Synthetic Biology: Emerging Global Markets. Wellesley, MA, 2011.
3 P Oldham, S Hall, G Burton. Synthetic biology: Mapping the scientific landscape. PLoS One. 2012;7:e34368.
4 Nancy J Kelley & Associates. Synberc Sustainability Initiative: Initial Findings & Recommendations. New York, NY, February 4, 2014, Available at (Last accessed April 2014).

Industrial Biotechnology, published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., is a peer-reviewed bimonthly research journal focused on biobased industrial and environmental products and processes. The above article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Industrial Biotechnology with the title “Engineering Biology to Address Global Problems: Synthetic Biology Markets, Needs, and Applications”. The views expressed here are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Industrial Biotechnology journal, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers, or their affiliates. No endorsement of any entity or technology is implied.

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