Pari Datta Senior Innovation Specialist Cambridge Consultants

Disruptive Potential Exceeds 3D Printing and Autonomous Vehicles

The advance of human civilization has been driven by game-changing technologies that give us new capabilities to improve the fundamental aspects of our lives. Examples of such technologies include autonomous vehicles and 3D printing. One game-changing technology of the future—with as much disruptive potential as both 3D printing and autonomous vehicles—is synthetic biology. What grounds are there for taking this view?

Predicting Game Changers

Synthetic biology is the engineering of biology to carry out the various functions that we need and want, from producing new food ingredients to molecules for treating cancer—enabling us to engineer biology in the same way that we create computers using electronic components. Synthetic biology is possible today because of the advances made in reading and writing DNA and computing power. This biology is an exciting prospect; however, we cannot possibly predict what synthetic biology will be used for in the future from today’s knowledge, just as we could not for past game-changing technologies such as glass manufacturing and the World Wide Web.

When our ancestors first manufactured glass, they could not have predicted its considerable impact on the way we live. It led to the microscope, the discovery of cells, and therefore much of modern medicine. Glass led to our understanding of the universe through the invention of the telescope. It has allowed us to correct short sightedness and use fiber-optic cables for data transmission in our homes. A more recent game-changing technology is the internet. Enabled by more powerful computing hardware, it has influenced the way we do almost everything, from communication and financial transactions to shopping. There is no way that we could have foreseen that a palm-sized device could give anyone access to any book, film, or music anywhere at any time!

History tells us that it seems impossible to predict the future applications for synthetic biology. In part, this is because we do not know how the technology will evolve. Glass manufacturing evolved through the addition of lead, and the Internet developed with computer hardware. The components that enable synthetic biology will improve, from DNA synthesis to computer-aided simulation of biological behavior—we just cannot predict precisely how.

Synthetic Biology and Healthcare

Another way to view technology applications is as the solutions we need to solve our problems. One application of the Internet has been to manage the treatment of patients from remote locations; this is important because aging populations are a major problem for the developed world. Therefore, we could predict the future applications of synthetic biology by considering the major problems that we need to solve today by looking at current trends.

In the area of foods, short-term trends are leading to challenges in agriculture, logistics, and answering consumer choice. Consumers want food products to be available without seasonal or geographic restrictions. Long-term supply-and-demand concerns will be caused globally by increasing populations, reduced land availability, and climate change. Food production will need to be more efficient, consistent, and less subject to external factors. An example application of synthetic biology to solving these problems today is the use of engineered baker’s yeast to produce vitamins—saving the excessive land, water, and energy use to produce small amounts of these vitamins in plants.

In healthcare, we are being challenged by rising costs outstripping budgets, changing global demographics, and R&D gaps in future clinical products. This is leading to new situations where patients are taking charge of their own treatment as well as other structural changes in how healthcare is delivered.

The world’s population is moving from rural areas to cities and is aging, causing an overall increase in cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. There has been an increase in infectious disease, driven by the emergence of drug resistance and global pandemics. The delivery of healthcare is changing— becoming more proactive and less hospital-based, requiring Internet-based communication technologies to enable anywhere and anytime patient monitoring and treatment. Overall, these trends suggest that we need to improve our ability to care for patients outside of the hospital and novel treatments that improve our ability to treat these diseases.

Synthetic biology has been used to develop tests for infectious diseases that are inexpensive (that for Ebola is an example) and can be used anywhere to detect antibiotic-resistant strains. Perhaps more significant is the contribution to drug discovery that could be made by synthetic biology, where nearly 95% of drugs reaching Phase I do not receive approval. A key area of need is that of novel antibiotics because a shortage of potent antibiotics may lead to 10 million deaths per year globally by 2050. Here synthetic biology is being used to alter the genes that produce antibiotics in bacteria to generate potential new antibiotics.

Synthethic Biology in Industry

The impact of synthetic biology on industry could be as great as that on healthcare. Key problems in industry revolve around raw materials supply, manufacturing costs, and the functionality of processed materials. Raw materials and manufacturing are costly, due to scarcity, energy, and capital requirements and they can be hazardous to workers and the environment. The materials we produce have limitations in their functions and properties. Biological materials are inexpensive, abundant, and have novel functions, such as self-repair, with energy-efficiency and clean manufacturing.

Synthetic biology could reduce the energy, costs, and environmental impact of materials while bringing improved properties. Improved properties could include strength, as demonstrated by the production of spider silk using engineered bacteria to create stronger textiles. Other novel materials include acrylics produced using bacteria, a process that reduces the dependence on scarce petrochemicals as well as greenhouse gas emissions. In manufacturing, biocatalysts are being developed for chemical production to replace the costly and environmentally unfriendly processes used today.

Many of the challenges in industry are due to energy sources, with problems within energy demand, access, and climate change. Energy demand is continuing to grow rapidly because of an increasing global population and the developing world. Large amounts of oil and gas reserves belong to a small group of politically unstable nations. Provision of energy has come at the expense of our global environment and climate. The key opportunities for synthetic biology in energy are in replacing fossil fuels, improving efficiency, and dealing with pollution. Currently in development is a fuel formed by the optimization of metabolic processes in bacteria through increasing their alcohol content. Fuels such as these would be completely green and sustainable.

By examining global trends and problems, and looking for solutions and applications, we start to build a compelling position that synthetic biology is a game-changing technology for the future. There are many exciting applications that directly address global needs in a fundamental way.

Challenges for Synthetic Biology

There are significant challenges in delivering these applications. The big technical challenge for synthetic biology is achieving predictable outcomes from our designs. We may know the DNA sequences for different control elements and the expression of different proteins, but these parts do not work together predictably. Cells containing the same genetic circuits work differently, with causes varying from different growth conditions and unexpected genetic mutations. There is still much to learn and invent.

Furthermore, the potential of new technologies is often constrained by safety concerns or worries about their misuse. Synthetic biology certainly has this challenge. Genetically modified  (GM) crops have always had the potential to alleviate many of the food shortages caused by the growing demand for food across the world. There have been strong movements against GM foods due to concerns about their safety, driven by environmental groups and a strong press backlash. In the case of the Internet, it has sadly enabled criminal activities and opened up our private lives to government scrutiny. However, the huge array of potentially life-enhancing applications of a web-enabled world on our lives has overridden those concerns.

A strong regulatory framework to address safety concerns, clear scientific evidence of the undeniable potential benefits, and a well-managed media profile will all be necessary if synthetic biology is to realize its potential as a game-changing technology of our future.

Pari Datta ([email protected]) is senior innovation specialist at Cambridge Consultants.


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