Thematic Report

Synthetic biology – Redesigning life

by Shaun Cochran / Sep 1, 2019


Synthetic biology is a new field that blends biology, engineering and computer science – in effect, digitising DNA. It seeks to allow reliable programming of cellular behaviour. Additionally, it has inspired a re-evaluation of the effect of intellectual property rights on innovation and exploration of open licensing of biotech.

It disrupts any field where genetic engineering can add value
Because synthetic biology is a redesign of the genetic engineering workflow, it has been applied to multiple sectors. The ability to reprogramme life in an efficient, high-throughput manner has tremendous potential to enhance and increase the sustainability of production of industrial chemicals, foods, designer medicines, and consumer goods, and even has the potential to create new materials.

The field is new but shows rapid growth with products already on the market
Most companies in this rapidly growing field are not yet publicly traded, but larger corporations have partnered with or licensed technology from them. Main areas of focus are medicine and health, food and drink, chemicals, software and systems, agriculture, energy and environment, DNA/RNA synthesis and consumer products. High-risk venture-capital firms have helped to drive the expansion of the technology’s scope. Although activity is at the early stages, products have already hit the market, including spider-silk clothing, cannabis chemicals from yeast, fruit that does not brown when cut, and new disease therapies.

New technological breakthroughs and new uses
And this is only the beginning of the potential contribution from synthetic biology. NASA is incorporating it into the US space exploration and colonisation programme, and military experts are urging governments not to fall behind in exploiting the benefits of this technology for protection and defence. New areas include genome editing of humans, microbiome engineering, synthetic chromosomes, cell-free biomanufacturing and imbedding parallel non-natural biological systems into living organisms.