Topic Brief: Synthetic Biology

Author
Zev Burton
Published
Sep 20, 2022 07:35PM UTC
INFER announced a strategic focus on synthetic biology and launched the Synthetic Biology topic in late August 2022. This “topic brief,” aims to give everyone (especially non-experts) a starting point for their forecasting within this topic area.

Read through the following sections in order, or skip around to see what will help you the most with your forecasting! Each section includes helpful resources so you can get a solid understanding of the topic.

  1. What is synthetic biology and why are policymakers interested in this topic?
  2. What are the implications of synthetic biology in the energy sector?
  3. What does international competition in the field of synthetic biology look like?
  4. What are the risks associated with synthetic biology?

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1. What is synthetic biology and why are policymakers interested in this topic?

Synthetic biology is a new interdisciplinary area that involves the application of engineering principles to biology. It aims at the (re-)design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world. Synthetic biology, or as you may see us refer to it, “SynBio,” has a wide range of applications – from producing food to treating and curing diseases. INFER is looking at synthetic biology's impact on a global scale beginning with its application in the energy sector, where its ability to create biofuels (a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels) has the potential to transform everyday life and the environment. Synthetic biology allows scientists to explore using energy from the sun and plants and from sources like the waste material of microorganisms. 

Policymakers are interested in this field for several reasons, both economic and environmental. The synthetic biology economy is growing, and the world relies on biological engineering to make better products. In 2018, more than $20 billion was invested in synthetic biology technologies. It’s estimated that over the next 10 to 20 years, the synthetic bioeconomy could have a direct global impact of nearly $4 trillion annually– providing thousands of jobs and opportunities for workers and the public. On the environmental side, synthetic biology has applications in pollution reduction, biodiversity preservation, and food production. Overall, synthetic biology has near-limitless potential to transform the economy and energy sector. 

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2. What are the implications of synthetic biology for the energy sector?

The most prominent use of synthetic biology in the energy sector relates to biofuels. While researchers have made biodiesel fuel in small batches, there has yet to be a viable option that can be scaled to meet consumer demand for energy. However, recent advancements in the use of microorganisms/crops as biofuel products have been cause for excitement. The Department of Defense has put together several workshops concerning biofuel production to meet their needs. On the commercial side, energy giants such as ExxonMobile and Chevron are working with synthetic biology firms to research and scale biofuels. If synthetic biofuels become widely available and cost-efficient, as some companies such as Shell are aiming for, there would be significant positive impacts to mitigate global warming. According to the IPCC goal for limiting global warming, the global surface temperature increase by 2100 has an 85% probability of remaining below 2 degrees Celcius if this is accomplished. 

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3. What does international competition in the field of synthetic biology look like?

Currently, the United States is leading in synthetic biology research and development, but other nations are heavily investing in this area looking to boost their economies. Competition is divided into several areas. Some countries, such as China, are focusing more on the development of pharmaceuticals, while other countries, like Russia, are concentrating on biomedical applications. This does not mean that all countries are in direct competition with each other – international governance such as the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing provides opportunities for international collaboration. 

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4. What are the risks associated with synthetic biology?

Perhaps the most salient risk associated with synthetic biology is weaponization, the possibility of bad actors using synthetic biology techniques to recreate or strengthen viruses or other harmful developments. Moreover, when manually changing an ecosystem or species, unintended biological consequences could arise. While scientists may be able to predict what a synthetic organism may do in a lab, it is difficult to predict how it will behave and evolve in nonoptimal environments.

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Now that you’ve been briefed on the landscape of synthetic biology, try forecasting on a few questions – and don’t miss your chance at earning the SynBio Trendcaster badge through Oct. 31!


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