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How synthetic biology could change life as we know it

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a field of science that redefines organisms with the goal of enhancing and sustaining human life. According to one projection, this rapidly growing field of science is expected to reach $28.8 billion in global revenue by 2026.

Although it has the potential to transform many aspects of society, things could go wrong if synbio is used for malicious or unethical reasons. This infographic explores the potential opportunities and risks this budding field of science has to offer.

What is synthetic biology?

We’ve covered the basics of synbio in previous works, but as a refresher, here’s a quick explanation of what synbio is and how it works.

Synbio is a field of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning different biological components and systems in various organisms.

It’s like genetic engineering but done on a more granular level – whereas genetic engineering transfers off-the-shelf genetic material between organisms, synbio can build new genetic material from scratch.

Synbio’s opportunities

This field of science has a plethora of real-world applications that could transform our daily lives. A McKinsey study found over 400 potential uses for synbio, which were broken down into four main categories:

  • Human health and performance
  • Agriculture and food
  • Consumer products and services
  • Production of materials and energy

If these potential uses become a reality in the years to come, they could have a direct economic impact of up to $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.

1. Human health and performance

The medical and healthcare sector is expected to be heavily influenced by synbio, with an economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion each year by 2030-2040.

Synbio has a wide range of medical applications. For example, it can be used to manipulate the biological pathways of yeast to produce an antimalarial treatment.

It could also improve gene therapy. Using synbio techniques, British biotech company Touchlight Genetics is working on a way to build synthetic DNA without using bacteria, which would be a game-changer in the field of gene therapy.

2. Agriculture and food

Synbio also has the potential to make a splash in the agricultural sector, up to $1.2 trillion per year from 2030.

An example of this is synbio’s role in cell agriculture, which is when meat is created directly from cells. The cost of creating lab-grown meat has come down significantly in recent years, and because of this, various startups around the world are starting to develop a variety of cell-based meat products.

3. Consumer Products and Services

Using synthetic biology, products could be tailored to meet an individual’s unique needs. This would be useful in areas such as genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and age-related skin procedures.

By 2030-2040, synthetic biology could have an economic impact on consumer products and services of up to $800 billion per year.

4. Production of materials and energy

Synbio could also be used to increase the efficiency of clean energy and biofuel production. For example, microalgae are currently being “reprogrammed” to produce clean energy in an economically feasible way.

This, and other material and energy improvements through synbio methods, could have a direct economic impact of up to 300 billion dollars every year.

The potential risks of Synbio

While the potential economic and societal benefits of synthetic biology are vast, there are also a number of risks to be aware of:

  • Unintended biological consequences: Making changes to any biological system can have ripple effects on entire ecosystems or species. When any form of life is manipulated, things don’t always go as planned.
  • Moral issues: How comfortable we are with synbio depends on our values. Some synbio applications, such as embryo editing, are controversial. If these types of apps become mainstream, they could have massive societal implications, with the potential to increase polarization within communities.
  • Unequal access: Innovation and progress in synbio is happening faster in rich countries than in developing countries. If this trend continues, access to these types of technology may not be equal around the world. We have already witnessed this type of access gap during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, where the majority of vaccines have been administered in wealthy countries.
  • Biological weapons: Synbio could be used to recreate viruses or manipulate bacteria to make it more dangerous, if used with bad intention.

According to a group of scientists from the University of Edinburgh, communication between the public, synthetic biologists and policy makers is crucial if these societal and environmental risks can be mitigated.

Balancing risk and reward

Despite the risks involved, innovation in synbio is happening at a rapid pace.

By 2030, most people will likely have eaten, worn, or been treated with a product created by synthetic biology, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

Our choices today will dictate the future of synbio, and how we navigate this space will have a massive impact on our future, for better or for worse.

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