Synthetic Biology Moves into the Real World

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Synthetic Biology Moves into the Real World

Synthetic biology involves applying information technology to design and build living things. In the process, it will enable us to transform industries like agriculture, health care, and energy in the coming 25 years more than we have in the past 5,000 years.

To understand what's happening and why it's happening now, consider the fact that the ability to decode and digitize genomes has been slightly more than doubling every year for the past quarter of a century. As a result, the power to extract genetic information from living systems has increased 100 million times in 25 years. Similarly, the cost of synthesizing DNA has been falling at its own exponential rate.

The result, explains Paul Freemont of the Center for Synthetic Biology at Imperial College in London, is that "We can now chemically synthesize very large sections of DNA, and that allows us to design biological systems from scratch, just as an engineer designs and builds a piece of equipment starting from basics."1

The opportunities are unlimited. While the science is still new, it is already generating big economic returns. In 2010, U.S. revenues from genetically modified systems surpassed $300 billion; that's the equivalent of more than 2 percent of GDP.2 Breaking this figure down further, three primary areas of research are producing profits so far:

  1. Genetically modified drugs, at $75 billion
  2. Genetically modified seeds and crops, at $110 billion
  3. Industrial biotech, such as fuels, materials, and enzymes, at $115 billion

But this is just the beginning of a technological revolution that will transform several industries and improve many aspects of our lives. According to a framing paper presented recently at a conference at Cambridge University that brought together the leading experts in the new science, synthetic biology will make an impact on at least six areas:3

  1. Bioenergy, including synthetic fuels, biofuels, electricity, and hydrogen.
  2. Agriculture and food production, including engineered crops, pest control, and fertilizers.
  3. Environmental protection and remediation, including restoration, monitoring, and detection.
  4. Consumer products, including computers, sporting goods, and cosmetics.
  5. Chemical production, including industrial compounds, high-value compounds, plastics, and chemical synthesis.
  6. Human health, including medical drugs and devices, over-the-counter medicine, and clinical therapies.

According to the framing paper, titled "How Will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?," some of the benefits will include:4

  • The ability to raise crops using fewer pesticides
  • Greater food security
  • Improved nutrition
  • Livestock that produce medications or biological substances such as spider silk
  • Better sources of biofuels
  • New ways to target infectious diseases and cancer, develop vaccines and cell therapies, enable regenerative medicine, or make cancer cells self-destruct

For example, one presentation at the conference focused on a research project by Oxford University undergraduates...

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