Emerging technologies

Synthetic Biology: Realising opportunities and overcoming challenges


The OECD, in conjunction with Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) and the Australian Government hosted two separate meetings related to Synthetic Biology in Sydney, Australia in March 2012.

Synthetic biology is a modular approach to building biological products that allows new products to be built, and tested better, faster and cheaper than existing approaches and on a larger scale. Synthetic biology goes beyond modification of genetic material, and involves the design and construction of new biological functions, structures and systems not found in nature.

There are today a number of examples of products or processes derived from synthetic biology both in the laboratory and in production.  Biofene™ a renewable farnesene produced on an industrial scale by Amyris  is one good example. Biofene™ may be sold directly into industrial applications or put through simple chemical finishing steps to form a broad range of renewable products including squalane, base oil and finished lubricants and diesel.

Increasingly, synthetic biology appears poised to transform a number of existing products and process and to create new renewable alternatives. It may radically impact many fields, from energy to health, and may even provide solutions to a number of climate and environmental problems.

Synthetic biology, due in part to its origins in many different fields, is challenging existing infrastructure for research, and translation of this research.  Synthetic biology requires new tools and platforms for rapidly building and testing new DNA parts, chassis and systems.  There is a growing need for new ways of educating and training those active in the field, and news ways of understanding, assessing and translating progress in the field. At the present time, infrastructure for synthetic biology is being developed in a piece-meal fashion by different actors on an ‘immediate need’ basis and this is likely to hamper progress of the field.  There is a need for development of appropriate shared infrastructure and tools to support research and development in the field. 

Public and private investment will also be crucial and without it the potential to derive economic value from the field may be greatly limited.  Funding programs and other public investment initiatives are typically not designed to fund work spanning different fields in a concerted manner.  This means development of technology platforms and knowledge sharing infrastructure for synthetic biology may not supported to the extent they need to be to enable progress in the field. Similarly, recognition and training of scientists working in the field is not always adequately supported.

For further information please contact us by email: J. Philp.


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