By Rodalyn Guinto, MPP 2017
As public policy experts and experts-in-training we are challenged to evaluate two types of public problems: first are the perennial public problems — the ones that have been around since the rise of the first empires and civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia. These include poverty, unemployment, food and water insecurity, lack of education, political instability and religious conflicts. The second type are contemporary public problems — the new ones, the ones that generations before us could not have predicted such as climate change, rising sea levels, overpopulation, school shootings, student loan debt, net neutrality and cyberbullying.
Regardless of which group public problems fall into, there are multiple factors that contribute to their conception. For me, this suggests that the solution to every one of these issues must also be broad, multi-sector and multi-disciplined.
With this in mind, I’d like to discuss the policy implications of the cutting-edge field of science known as synthetic biology. By doing so, we open ourselves up to new ways of understanding the same old problems and identifying fresh new ideas that might not have been on our radars.
Synthetic biology combines life science with the latest advances in engineering and computer science
Biology is the study of life and living organisms from the microscopic to the mega-meter scale. Synthetic biology, loosely described, is the science of manipulating a cell’s genome to produce a product or to behave in such a way that it wouldn’t otherwise. Single-celled organisms like E. coli, found in the large intestine of humans and most mammals, and yeast, used in baking and brewing beer, are often used in synthetic biology because scientists know a lot about them—roughly 60 years worth of data.
Synthetic biology is a branch of biotechnology that combines what we know about the natural world with the latest advances in engineering and computer science to create tangible products. In 2012, CRISPR/Cas9—a gene-editing technique which allows scientists to make precise changes in a cell’s genome— reignited excitement in the field. Compared to other gene-editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is faster, cheaper, more accurate and more efficient. This made synthetic biology more accessible. The implications of this breakthrough are evident in the growing number of biotech startups today.
Benefits – innovative technologies developing from synthetic biology
The technologies and products developing from the field of synthetic biology are many and varied. However, they are similar in that they are produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and many of the technologies and products are in the scale-up phase.
Here are a few:
Algae-powered fuel cells are a type biophotovoltaics (BPV) that use the photosynthetic properties of microorganisms, in this case, algae, to convert sunlight into electric current to provide electricity. This technology’s power density is not enough to power an entire grid, but it could be useful in areas that receive a lot of sun, but does not have an existing electrical grid like in rural areas of Africa. Another good thing about this technology — the fuel cells could be produced by the locals themselves.
Next-generation therapeutics could enhance treatments for maladies like cancer, osteoporosis, and chronic pain. For example, non-opioid therapeutics are being developed to treat acute and chronic pain. This is useful technology because the opioid drugs that are widely prescribed today, although effective, are highly addictive.
Synthetic spider silk is stronger than steel, lightweight and flexible. It’s made from common, accessible materials like water, sugar, and silica. This means it is biodegradable; it does not use petroleum like other fibers; and it has potential to be affordable. The textile industry is one of the planet’s top polluters This technology, when scaled up, could alleviate some of the environmental effects of clothing manufacturing.
“Bioleather” is biofabricated leather without the dead cows or petrochemicals used to make pleather or vegan leather.
“Clean meat” is grown directly from cells without the need to feed, breed, and slaughter animals.
Climate-resistant seeds are a critical part of a larger strategy to sustain our world under climate change.
Risks – bioerror and bioterror
For every good a technology brings to the world, there are also risks that we must think about and plan for. In synthetic biology, thought leaders are grappling with risks that include, but are not limited to bioerror and bioterror.
Simply put, “bioerror” is the accidental release of genetically engineered microbes outside of the lab. Bioterror, meanwhile, is the intentional release of genetically engineered microbes into the world with the intent to harm.
In response to these risks, bioengineers have built and continue to perfect robust biocontainment measures — genetically encoded safeguards that control and contain genetically engineered microbes to prevent them from surviving in environments where they are not meant to.
To date, the two most widely studied biocontainment measures are: auxotrophic strategies and kill switches.
Auxotrophic strategies, when incorporated in a genetically engineered microbe’s genome, makes the microbe dependent on a molecule to survive. If this molecule is not supplied, the microbe is unable to grow and dies. Humans, for example, are auxotrophs. We need vitamins and essential nutrients in our diets to stay healthy and thrive.
Kill switches, on the other hand, rewire the microbe’s gene circuits to control essential gene expression or block toxin gene expression under specific biocontainment conditions. In other words, when the microbe does not detect a particular chemical or biological signal in its environment, the circuit is triggered to block essential gene expression or to induce lethal toxins at higher levels leading to cell death.
Synthetic biology is here to stay, local and state policymakers should create strategic plans for science
These technologies, and their potential benefits and risks, will continue to be developed and eventually become part of our everyday lives regardless of whether policymakers understand them. However, policymakers should create strategic plans in order to prepare our constituents. Similar to how policymakers and key stakeholders gather to scrutinize the future of education, transportation, and housing for example, we could begin developing strategic plans for science, which of course would include the biotech and synthetic biology sector.
Communicating the science effectively is key to preparing our cities and states for these technologies. Therefore it is important that policymakers and public policy analyst understand how the science works. One of the best ways to learn about science, or anything really, is to talk to the people that are in the field. The San Francisco Bay Area has a robust and growing community of biotechnology and synthetic biology experts. For public policy students, finding someone knowledgeable about the field is just a few steps away—just go to the science building and talk to a biology professor or one of their students. Speaking of students, I personally believe that the best (and most fun) way to learn about this field is from young people. Check out your local high school! Many of their students participate in the iGEM, an annual international competition that encourages teams of students to apply synthetic biology to create tangible solutions to public problems.
Rodalyn is a policy writer for SynBioBeta, the Synthetic Biology Innovation Network. She received her Master of Public Policy from The Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy Mills in 2017. Her policy and research interests include biotechnology, synthetic biology, and anything having to do with science.