Synbio innovation is moving at a breakneck rate and how we traverse this domain will have a significant impact on our future. Here is how synthetic biology is going to change life as we know it.
Synthetic biology (synbio) is a branch of science that aims to improve and sustain human life by redesigning organisms. According to one estimate, global revenue from this rapidly rising field of study would reach $28.8 billion by 2026.
Although technology has the potential to revolutionize many facets of society, as Carmen Ang of Visual Capitalist explains below, things could go tragically wrong if synbio is exploited for evil or unethical purposes. This infographic looks at the benefits and drawbacks that this new branch of study has to offer.
What is Synthetic Biology?
We have already discussed the foundations of synbio in earlier posts, but here’s a quick recap about what it is and how it functions.
Synbio is a field of science that focuses on modifying and rebuilding biological components and systems in diverse species.
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Synbio is similar to genetic engineering, but it can produce new genetic material from scratch, whereas genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material across organisms.
The Opportunities of Synbio
This branch of study has a slew of practical applications that have the potential to change our lives. McKinsey discovered over 400 possible synbio applications (read below), which were divided into four categories:
- Human health and performance
- Agriculture and food
- Consumer products and services
- Materials and energy production
If those prospective applications are realized in the next years, they might have a substantial economic impact of $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.
1. Human Health and Performance
Synbio is expected to have a large impact on the medical and health sector, with an annual economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion by 2030-2040.
Synbio can be used in a variety of medicinal settings. It can be used to modify biological pathways in yeast to develop an anti-malaria medication, for example.
It may also help with gene therapy. Touchlight Genetics, a British biotech firm, is researching on a means to create synthetic DNA without using bacteria, which would be a game-changer in the realm of gene therapy.
2. Agriculture and Food
Synbio has the capacity to exert a huge impact in the agricultural sector, with annual revenues of up to $1.2 trillion by 2030.
Synbio’s contribution in cellular agriculture, in which meat is produced directly from cells, is one example. The cost of producing lab-grown meat has dropped dramatically in recent years, and as a result, a range of cell-based meat products are being developed by various companies throughout the world.
3. Consumer Products and Services
Products could be personalized to an individual’s specific demands using synthetic biology. This could be valuable in areas like genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and skin treatments for the aging.
Synthetic biology might have an annual economic impact of up to $800 billion on consumer goods and services by 2030-2040.
4. Materials and Energy Production
Synbio could also be employed to improve renewable energy and biofuel production efficiency. Microalgae, for example, are presently being “reprogrammed” to generate clean energy in a cost-effective manner.
This, together with other synbio-based material and energy advances, could have a direct economic impact of up to $300 billion per year.
The Potential Risks of Synbio
While synthetic biology has a lot of potential economic and societal benefits, it also has a lot of concerns to consider:
- Unintended biological implications: Changing any biological system can have far-reaching repercussions for entire ecosystems or species. When any type of lifeform is managed, things do not always proceed as planned.
- Moral concerns: How far we are willing to go with synbio is determined by our ideals. Some synbio applications, like that as embryo editing, are contentious. If these types of applications become commonplace, they could have far-reaching societal consequences, including the potential for increased divisiveness among communities.
- Inequality of access: Innovation and progress in synbio occur faster in wealthy nations than in developing ones. If this tendency persists, accessibility to this type of technology may not be equitable throughout the world. We saw this type of access divide during the deployment of COVID-19 vaccinations, where the majority of vaccines were provided in developed countries.
- Bioweaponry: Synbio can also be used to reproduce viruses or alter bacteria to make them more hazardous if used maliciously.
Communication between the public, synthetic biologists, and political decision-makers, as per a group of scientists from the University of Edinburgh, is critical for mitigating such societal and environmental dangers.
Balancing Risk and Reward
Despite the concerns, synbio innovation is moving at a breakneck rate.
According to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt, most individuals will have consumed, worn, or been treated by a product made by synthetic biology by 2030.
Our decisions now will determine the future of synbio, and how we traverse this domain will have a significant impact on our future—for better or worse.
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