At Forbes magazine's June Techonomy conference, Nancy J. Kelly former founding director of the New York Genome Center gave a presentation on engineering biology to address global challenges. According to Kelly this process has already started. She pegs the beginning of synthetic biology to when in 1828, Friederich Wohler synthesized urea, a natural product of the kidneys, from ammonium cyanate, an inorganic salt, setting the stage for the question of where the boundary is between an inorganic molecule and something that's alive.
Kelly says the United States has pioneered research in the synthetic biology field, but now that is leaving the realm of academia and becoming industrialized, other places, such as the EU and China are "really beginning to invest in this area in ways that will surpass the United States." For-profit companies are bringing solutions to market that are having an impact on the world.
She goes on to say, "And what we're seeing is that the solutions that they're bringing to market are really profoundly changing the way in which we live, from the energy space where Solazyme is basically creating the first consumer-ready algae-based fuel for cars, planes, and boats among other things in the chemical area, which is especially exciting. And what we're seeing is synthetically-derived palm oils, which have just made the news recently, could reduce deforestation, and this is really important because some claim that in fifteen years 98 percent of the rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone unless we create a sustainable way of producing palm oil."
Other areas where genetic engineering can help are in the development of drought-resistant and pest-resistant crops, vaccines, and ecologically friendly substances that can aid in the cleanup of oil spills and toxins.
But, despite the great promise of biological innovation, it also faces challenges. According to Kelley the technology is in its infancy, "First, we've only just scratched the surface. There is a great need for new foundational and translational technologies and tools and need for fundamental research in biology in terms of how it actually works and how we understand it. And so methods, technologies, biological platforms, computational tools, and bioinformatics, all of this still remains to be developed."
Funding for research is also an issue. Kelley believes the scientific community needs to look beyond the federal government for this and to foundations, academia, and commercial entities that can come together with government to pursue large, useful, multidisciplinary projects.
Also, the existing regulatory structure has gaps that can hinder progress. U.S. regulators are having trouble keeping up with the science and fear that unless there is closer collaboration between government, academia, and the private sector, the lack of clear regulation could slow the introduction of new products.
Additionally, the general public needs to be educated. Many people fear biological engineering and this could lead to emotionally-based over-regulation that holds back the industry.
Another need is better infrastructure that can be shared by the synthetic biology community. Kelley refers to this as the "bio-commons infrastructure" which includes registries, repositories, software tools, biofab, and standards. Approaches to intellectual property that support commercialization, but maintain open-sources need to be built into this infrastructure.
Synthetic biology is rapidly developing and has great potential to do good in the world, but needs a coordinating entity that can generate new funding, guide regulation, educate the public, and develop infrastructure. Says Kelley, "I think we really need to look at the leadership problem and question. The U.S., despite its early entry into this area, currently lacks a coordinated, integrated, and strategic approach to leadership on a global level."