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Synthetic biology brings together biological sciences, computer modelling and engineering to design and create new biological parts, devices, and systems and to re-design existing, natural biological systems with new capabilities for useful purposes. It has already been heralded as ‘the next big thing’ and its potential impact likened to that of computing in terms of scale and changing how we do things.
Synthetic biology has been heralded as ‘the next big thing’- its potential impact likened to that of computing in terms of changing how we do things
Although synthetic biology is still a relatively new field, only about ten years old, its capabilities and achievements are growing and its visibility is rising. Its potential to deliver is emerging. Recent developments include:
As with computing and electronics, the range of possible applications is enormous, and so therefore is its market potential. Currently valued at $1 billion worldwide, the market for products and equipment based on synthetic biology is expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2016 – the vast majority of that for products. However, to put that into perspective, biotechnology revenues in 2010 were in the region of $300 billion.
Synthetic biology’s potential is emerging in many sectors, for example:
However, as with all new technologies, there are concerns, potential risks and significant externalities: corporate ownership of biological processes; inadvertent – or more worrying deliberate – release of untested organisms; loss of income and livelihood for farmers of natural products which are replaced; increased complexity of agricultural systems. The dangers of hype and oversell, misrepresentation and overreaction, fear and risk aversion will all add to the mix as the much needed debate grows and regulation emerges.
As with all major changes, balancing the rewards and the risks, ensuring the one while minimising the other will be the key to success. Companies in any number of fields will need to assess the impacts flowing from synthetic biology; researchers will need to find new ways to collaborate to work in very multi-disciplinary ways; policy makers and regulators will need to learn the lessons of previous developments to consult, educate and enable us all to benefit from this emerging field.
Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.
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