We will face many global challenges in the 21st century: providing safe, nutritious food for a growing population; meeting bigger energy needs with a smaller environmental impact; creating better drugs for diseases like Zika and cancer; and finding new ways to protect and improve our lives. Biology will be a critical part of the solution. Here are a few reasons:
In 2012 alone, the bio-based product market grew to more than 2.2 percent of US gross domestic product, or more than $353 billion in economic activity , and US business-to-business revenues from industrial biotechnology alone reached at least $125 billion . Many of these biological solutions were made possible because of synthetic biology, which will make many more solutions possible in the future.
Basic understanding of nature
Advances in synthetic biology increase our understanding of natural systems. This is critical for new advances in biotechnology. Engineered biological systems give us the ability to measure and control behavior in cells, which then allows us to formulate and test new hypotheses about the natural world. We can test our understanding of biology by building systems from scratch and seeing if our understanding is correct. New discoveries in biology will come from these basic research efforts, along with the tools, techniques, and various biological parts, circuits and systems created to pursue knowledge. All of it feeds a virtuous cycle between biological science and biological engineering.
Other countries have clear national strategies and large coordinated investments to realize the economic and social impact offered by the solutions and potential of synthetic biology. Declaring synthetic biology one of the “eight great technologies” of the 21st century, the UK government invested $175M since 2005 to ensure a global leadership position and to drive the potential of synthetic biology to contribute to its economy and society. For its part, China has developed an aggressive strategic roadmap to usher in a new era of economic growth powered by technology, and the Wilson Center projects that China is investing heavily in the field based on the number of Chinese iGEM teams, 254 publications produced since 2010, and the rise of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) [3-4].
Established in 2006 to address the challenges and exploit the potential of synthetic biology, NSF’s Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) was one of the largest early US government investments in biological engineering. Synberc advanced basic knowledge about synthetic biological systems; developed numerous foundational technologies; trained a cadre of synthetic biology practitioners that populate universities, government laboratories and agencies, and industry; and established a unique industrial-academic partnership. When Synberc ended in June 2016, the US was left in critical need of an organizing effort to bring together a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers to develop a comprehensive national roadmap and vision to lead the field.
Quick action is required or the US risks falling behind in critical research and industry sectors – ones pioneered by the US. The Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC) aims to provide the catalyst and infrastructure to bring public and private stakeholders together to create a broadly representative consortium to thoughtfully guide synthetic biology to be aligned with national priorities, economic goals, and ultimately a better world for everyone on the planet.
1. Carlson, R. Synthesis. The U.S. Bioeconomy in 2012 Reached $350 Billion in Revenues, or About 2.5% of GDP. http://www.synthesis.cc/2014/01/the-us-bioeconomy-in-2012. (accessed July 18, 2014)
2. Solomon, D. Industrial Views on Synthetic Biology. Presented at Tooling the U.S. Bioeconomy: Synthetic Biology Conference, Washington, DC, November 5, 2013. ACS Science & the Congress Project, 2013.
3. Positioning Synthetic Biology to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century: Summary Report of a Six Academies Symposium Series. Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; Policy and Global Affairs; Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; National Research Council. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Aug 5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK202050/
4. U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding. Wilson Center http://www.synbioproject.org/publications/u.s-trends-in-synthetic-biolog...(accessed November 5, 2015)