Engineering Biology

An MForesight Rapid Response Report

For centuries, humans have been altering the genetic material of living organisms through selective breeding. Yet, today, these old practices are taking on fundamentally new meaning and consequence. Scientists are creating new DNA sequences from scratch in order to produce materials with potential to solve practical problems in diverse fields from medical treatment to energy production.

There are few elements of emerging technology that require long-term foresight more than this nascent field of Engineering Biology — the practice of applying engineering principles to design, modify, and produce customized biological components and systems.

The potential benefits of Engineering Biology — from low-emissions biofuels to new cancer-fighting medical technologies — are enormous. But so are the potential pitfalls.

Venturing into a field with extraordinary tools and unprecedented implications — altering the building blocks of life itself — requires skillful measures to identify and address potential unintended consequences. Governing the growth of Engineering Biology means not only maximizing efforts to enable discovery and invention to create jobs and meet crucial human needs; it also means thinking in interdisciplinary ways about unforeseen implications for health, safety, the environment, and the economy in the long-range future.

With the rise of synthetic biology, there are also hurdles American firms must address if they wish to assume the “first-mover advantage” and bring meaningful innovations from the laboratory to the marketplace.

As the assembly of many important American products moves beyond the shop floor to the clean room and the laboratory, the nation’s competitive advantage increasingly depends on our ability to stay ahead of the curve. Competitiveness in the emerging field of bioproducts requires collaboration between universities, federal agencies, and private firms to invest in research, skills, and other aspects of successful industrial development.

America needs integrated, foresighted thinking across these sectors if it is to attain the first-mover advantage and prudently manage the growth of this and other fields at the nexus of advanced science and manufacturing.

For these reasons, in October of 2014, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for the creation of a new institution to think about and plan proactively for the future of American manufacturing (“Report to the President: Accelerating U.S. Advanced Manufacturing” PDF). MForesight: Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight was created the following year as a national independent think-tank with a mandate to scan for “the next big thing” in manufacturing and identify best practices for federal investment, public-private partnerships, workforce training, regulation, and public education. Learn more about MForesight with our introductory post.

The most immediate component of MForesight’s mission is among its most important: to convene leading experts to respond to business, government, and academic players in advanced manufacturing seeking to understand advanced manufacturing issues and high-impact research investment opportunities on the horizon. MForesight’s first Rapid Response Report — on Engineering Biology — seeks to fulfill this mission.

Today, for the most part, each individual firm engaged in Engineering Biology is following its own path in designing, building, testing, and learning through an internal product development process. While this “each-firm-for-itself” approach is a viable way for many new industries to get off the ground, there are extraordinarily high costs for the development of new bioproducts — each can cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and the current approach results in significant duplication-of-effort. High development cost also means high barriers-to-entry, and the exclusion of new entrepreneurs and investors who could help drive innovation.

Building on unique insights from a diverse panel of experts as well as the work of leading think tanks, MForesight’s report on Engineering Biology presents a range of options for how federal agencies, private firms, and academic institutions can overcome these challenges. The report puts forward a sensible way for stakeholders to increase the speed and reduce the cost of product development: through collaborative investment in standardized host cells or strains.

By working together at the pre-competitive level to develop such platform tools, stakeholders across sectors can make more innovation possible, eliminate regulatory redundancies, and reduce risks in the creation of bioproducts.

Of course, pre-competitive research cooperation alone isn’t a panacea. Enabling responsible growth in the emerging field requires foresight on matters from university tech transfer to workforce development. These matters underlie the diverse recommendations in the new report.

While Engineering Biology might still seem like science fiction in the public imagination, it’s quickly emerging as an important aspect of American manufacturing. Managing the growth of this promising but uncertain field requires a rare quality: foresight.

Download and read the report: Biomanufacturing Technologies for Engineering Biology