The immense potential of synthetic biology.
The biorevolution, decades in the making, is well underway and synthetic biology (synbio) is progressing at a blistering speed, said to be even outpacing Moore’s law (which states that computing power doubles every two years). This rapid progression in synbio is largely owed to the growing interface between biology and computers, and dramatic improvements in molecular biology tools. This has made scientists exponentially better at experimentation, rapidly increasing the rate of discovery. Many of these discoveries have fostered the development of innumerable novel biotechnologies that enable everyday products to be manufactured using biology instead of traditional methods. Today, most products like food, materials, and energy, fall outside the historical applications of biomanufacturing (i.e. medicine). However, a rapidly growing list of over 400 different products could be transitioned to production by biomanufacturing to capture a wide array of advantages.
Transitioning to biomanufacturing over traditional methods presents an opportunity to produce products more economically with enhanced properties and with a lower environmental price tag. The sweeping impact this could have on society and global economies is massive. In fact, it has been hypothesized that we could theoretically manufacture up to 60% of the inputs to our physical economy using biology.
But, if we want to make that happen, we have to address the massive chasm in global biomanufacturing capacity. Currently, we’re nowhere near equipped with the infrastructure to produce any of these novel products at a meaningful scale. And I say “meaningful” because it’s important to recognize that most of these technologies will only make a real impact if they’re deployed at a massive scale. Remember, the whole point of the biorevolution is to make food, materials, and energy better—better for humans, better for animals, but most importantly, better for the planet. But the biorevolution’s impact will be moot if its outputs are reserved for the wealthy few. To make change, these products must become ubiquitous.
Many (myself included) believe in the immense potential of synthetic biology, but we need to temper our excitement with reality by acknowledging the magnitude of this scaling challenge.