Synthetic biology is an emerging technical field that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. Synthetic biology has applications in strategically important sectors for the U.S. economy, and the field is still maturing in terms of translating discoveries into scalable products and solutions. According to the US National Bioeconomy Blueprint (2012), synthetic biology and related biotechnologies have the potential to “allow [people] to live longer, healthier lives, reduce our dependence on oil, address key environmental challenges, transform manufacturing processes, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while growing new jobs and industries.”
While the U.S. currently leads in synthetic biology research and development, other nations are heavily investing to boost their economies. According to some experts, for the U.S. to remain competitive, one of the sectors that is close to commercial viability and could benefit from additional investment is the fuel industry. For example, synthetic biology can be applied to the production of biofuels, which are chemically similar to gasoline and diesel, but are produced by processing crops, algae, or microbial cultures. There has been growing international interest in alternative and renewable fuel sources due to increasing global energy demand, diminishing fossil fuel reserves, and the urgent need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from non-renewable energy sources.
Given how indicative the fuel industry is for the ability of the U.S. to optimize the opportunities and risks of synthetic biology, the INFER team is introducing its next strategic question: Will synthetic biology fundamentally transform the way the U.S. competes in the oil & gas industry?
We see a few different ways that synthetic biology can play a role in the energy sector. On one end of the spectrum, synthetic biology may be a passing fad. In the middle, there is the possibility that synthetic biology will be integrated into the current energy sector or that it gets overshadowed by other technologies. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the future where synthetic biology has fundamentally transformed the energy sector as we know it.
Below, you can see how INFER has decomposed the strategic question into four contributing factors (and related sub-factors) that are critical to understanding the possible outcomes. From these factors, we have derived the individual signals (i.e., forecast questions), which serve as the specific metrics or events that tell us how a factor or sub-factor is trending.
Let’s look at how these contributing factors help to assess the outcome of the strategic question:
- Costs -- Future technological costs will help us understand adoption at scale. For example, if the newest technological developments are high-cost, it decreases the chances they will be broadly adopted. If technology costs decrease, mass adoption is more likely.
- Investment -- Financial support from government and private industry is necessary to scale synthetic biology applications from research to commercial levels. Changing levels of financial support from government vs. private industry may also signal shifting priorities for synthetic biology technology, applications, and governance.
- Ecosystem -- This encompasses the various elements that create an environment within which the field of synthetic biology can advance, such as regulations, talent/human capital, information sharing, and production capacity.
- Demand -- The level of demand within the sector will determine the level of priority given to synthetic biology as a field, and thus will impact the rate of development.
The fuel industry, in particular, is a sentinel case that both the government and private sector are watching to assess whether synthetic biology has the potential to fundamentally transform the bioeconomy and U.S. economic competitiveness more broadly. Another point of interest around this topic is that synthetic biology developments within the fuel industry have a bearing on larger policy issues surrounding energy and climate change.
The INFER team worked with subject matter expert Andy Kilianski, a former senior scientist and program manager at the Department of Defense and current Senior Director at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, to define the strategic question and overall decomposition. If you’d like to learn more, Mr. Kiliansky will be our featured speaker for the Fireside Chat on Aug. 24, “The Future of the Synthetic Age.”
If you’re interested in this topic, help generate insights for policymakers by forecasting on our latest questions: