Emerging technologies

Synthetic Biology


Today, scientists are going beyond sequencing and manipulating genes, they are building life from scratch. Synthetic biology refers to the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems which do not exist in the natural world and to the redesign of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks.

The first synthetic bacterial genome has been achieved. In 2014 a synthetic chromosome in Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the bread and wine yeast) was completed. Progress is being made in various directions: chassis or minimal cells, xenobiology, protocells. Metabolic engineering is now being used to produce bio-based chemicals, plastics and fuels to replace oil-based equivalents. The world’s first synthetic biology food ingredient – vanilla produced by a microbial fermentation – is hitting the market in 2014 also. High-value biopharmaceuticals will follow.

Synthetic biology is a powerful and transformative technique which merges biology and engineering. It opens up enormous scientific, commercial, agricultural and health opportunities. It accords with strategies to overcome grand challenges such as climate change and energy security. But the promise of synthetic biology needs to be better understood, the variety of players involved identified, and their – potentially conflicting – research agendas and business strategies explored.

Synthetic biology will undoubtedly also raise policy challenges for governments if the maximum benefits are to be realised. These include social, economic, and legal challenges, as well as biosecurity and safety concerns. The OECD is in an ideal position to forge a common understanding in the policy community of the issues to be aware of (research needs, infrastructure, community building, safety and security concerns, regulatory implications, market pathways, public understanding). Moreover, the OECD can launch dialogue to assure that the economic and social benefits of this new technology are responsibly encouraged.