I’ve always been fascinated with synthetic biology. When I was a high school senior in rural Massachusetts, my AP biology teacher told us about his previous job in Boston before teaching: he was developing new, highly durable materials based off of spider silk. I wanted to do something similar, using biology to develop new innovations, but I wanted to work with plants or microbes. In 2005, the field of synthetic biology, and bio-inspired materials, wasn’t really developed. I went down a different path, passing through Anthropology, Archaeology, Microbiology, and Plant Science departments in four different countries, gaining various skills along the way. Just over a decade later, synthetic biology is a fully developed field with multiple stakeholders from academia and industry. People do synthetic biology for different reasons. Some want to test the limits of our control over living organisms.1, 2 Others want to develop entirely new life forms.3 The motivation behind my research? To use synthetic biology to clean up the environment.
Materials, enzymes and compounds produced by living organisms can be used as inspiration for new biotechnological innovations. Left: Spider silk, one of the toughest materials on earth. Right: An example of using synthetic biology for bioremediation. Here, bacteria are engineered to over-express the enzyme p450cam from Pseudomonas putida, a soil bacteria that can eat petroleum. Over-expressing just one enzyme allowed the bacteria to degrade over 99% of the dodecane (a compound of crude oil) it was given in just 10 days.
Synthetic biology has always held the promise of making the world a better place.4 But I sometimes wonder if synthetic biologists have lost this zeitgeist. To date, much of the output of synthetic biology has been focused on producing industrial commodities: flavorings, essences, and other chemicals for the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.5-10 Synbio-based industries are booming. Many are spin-outs from leading universities--like Gingko Bioworks (MIT), Amyris (UC Berkeley), and OxSysBio (Oxford). In 2017 alone, fifty synthetic biology-based start-ups raised £1.7 billion11 and synbio-based industries are expected to be valued at £62 billion by 2020.12 Although currently dominated by the West, these shifts in the biotech world are having global ramifications. In 2018, the Singapore government invested $19 million to shore up it's national capacity to do synthetic biology. It’s an economic trend that is here to stay and which I believe will dramatically change the world we live in over the next 20 years. While many stand to benefit, it's also clear that others (for example, small farmers in developing countries) could stand to lose if their main source of income is now produced in yeast or bacteria.
Using synthetic biology to produce plant compounds for Western industries is a growing trend which could affect the livelihoods of small farmers and alter the future of agriculture in developing countries. Left: Palm oil kernels. Right: A Burmese farmer collecting palm oil fruits (Bagan, Myanmar).
These industries have created thousands of jobs, but in a very narrow aspect of synthetic biology’s potential (natural product development). I would argue that we need to widen the use of synthetic biology in society. Think of the big challenges we face: air pollution, climate change, loss of natural resources, and a world drowning in plastic. Start-ups exploiting more complex functions of organisms—natural or engineered—and the materials they produce have a strong market potential and power for affecting social change that I think is currently underestimated.
Synthetic biology could be used to generate new innovations to clean up the environment, meeting key UN Sustainable Development goals in the process.
In my article, I make a clear argument for how synthetic biology can contribute to sustainable development, using the UN 2030 Sustainable Development13 goals to make my point. But I also make it clear that we need to change how we do synthetic biology to really achieve this goal: we need to reduce lab waste, make natural product development fair and equitable, and support opportunities to do synthetic biology in non-western countries.
Organisms have an incredible capacity to adapt to the challenges faced to life on earth. Synthetic biology gives us the tools to understand and harness this diversity to develop new solutions for a more sustainable future.
- Gardner, T. S., Cantor, C. R. & Collins, J. J. Construction of a genetic toggle switch in Escherichia coli. Nature 403, 339–342 (2000).
- Elowitz, M. B. & Leibler, S. A synthetic oscillatory network of transcriptional regulators. Nature 403, 335–338 (2000).
- Gibson, D. G. et al. Complete Chemical Synthesis, Assembly, and Cloning of a Mycoplasma genitalium Genome. Science 319, 1215–1220 (2008).
- Khalil, A. S. & Collins, J. J. Synthetic biology: applications come of age. Nat Rev Genet 11, 367–379 (2010).
- Dai, Z. et al. FEMS Yeast Research 15, 1–11 (2015).
- Galanie, S. et al. Science 349, 1095-1100 (2015).
- Arendt, P. et al. The Plant Journal 87, 16–37 (2016).
- Liu, X. et al. Nature Communications 9, 448 (2018).
- Walton, N. et al. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 11, 490-496 (2000).
- Wei, Y. et al. AMB Express 7, 34 (2017).
- Synbiobeta. These Fifty Synthetic Biology Companies Raised $1.7B in 2017, https://synbiobeta.com/fifty-synthetic-biology-companies-raised-1-7b-2017/.
- SynbiCITE. Synthetic biology is predicted to be a £62bn market by 2020. http://www.synbicite.com/collaboration/investors/.
- United Nations. “17 goals to Transform Our World.” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/