Synthetic biologists are gradually learning how to program the code of life the way that computer experts have learned to program machines. If they can succeed — and if the public accepts their work — synthetic biology stands to fundamentally transform how we live.
SynBioBeta, synthetic biology’s major commercial conference, launched on Tuesday, virtually bringing together thousands of scientists, entrepreneurs, VCs and more to discuss the state of the field. A McKinsey report from earlier this year estimated the entire bioeconomy could have a direct global economic impact of up to $4 trillion over the next 10–20 years.
Broadly defined, synthetic biology takes an engineering approach to shaping life for specific ends, from enzymes to microbes to, eventually, the human genome itself.
The difference between the past few centuries of breeding plants and animals and today’s synthetic biology is the control scientists are increasingly able to maintain over the messy stuff of life, thanks to advances in sequencing genes and, increasingly, synthesizing them.
They can make deliberate, precise edits to DNA through new tools like CRISPR or even create genetic matter in entirely new combinations.
From alternative meat to advanced biofuels to mushroom-based building materials, one of the biggest promises of synthetic biology involves the engineering of products that are far more sustainable than those generated by conventional industry, because biology itself is inherently less wasteful.