Don't let the U.S. lose its biotechnology edge

The second annual Biodesign Challenge Summit just wrapped up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In all, 22 teams from universities in seven countries presented creative ideas for a biology-infused future, envisioning such things as:

  • A biodegradable wristband that glows if the wearer had too much to drink (University of Colorado, Boulder);
  • “Habitat walls” to create homes for declining bird populations (University of Minnesota);
  • A microbial garden theme park to create a human-sized version of microscopic animals (California Institute of the Arts);
  • And even a concept for an algae-based clothes washer that purifies water and dyes the clothing in whatever colors the user wants, so that up-to-the-minute fashion doesn’t need to be environmentally unfriendly (Maryland Institute College of Art).

The winning project came from Central St. Martins in the U.K., for their concept of using earthworms in abandoned coal mines to harvest commercially important metals; this would give economically depressed communities a new source of revenue and jobs and would also clean the environment.

For these students, the increasing powers of biotechnology raise important ethical and societal questions, but they see biotechnology largely as a source for hope for our planet. If used properly, biotechnology could rescue species in trouble, such as purple martins, bees and coral. It could also to make it easier for people to discard less, and reuse more. As a judge in this competition, the students’ hopefulness, inventiveness and concern for our planet and all its inhabitants was clearly inspiring: We should all hope they are able to shape a positive future for biotechnology.

But a technology’s development rests upon its developers, and the benefits, including jobs, will go to the market they cater to — and it is no longer clear that the U.S. will be that market. This is concerning, not only because those benefits could accrue here in the U.S., but because the governance and safety of new biotechnologies will be in the hands of those who are the scientific leaders in the technology.

For now, the U.S. is a biotechnology world-leader and has the potential to benefit the most in jobs and in products. Synthetic biology, a relatively new field that aims to make biology easier to engineer, was born in the U.S., and the US is still in the lead; Fidelity Investments describe synthetic biology as the defining technology of this century and the World Economic Forum ranks it within the top 10 emerging technologies. But other nations are investing heavily and supporting their scientists, and there is mounting concern that the U.S. is not just losing its competitive advantage, but actually falling behind. Most of the competition is coming from China. More than a quarter of the world’s DNA sequencing capacity is contained within one Chinese company, and China already produces more life science and engineering PhDs. Chinese scientists used CRISPR — a gene editing technique that is similar to the “find” and “replace” function in Word — to treat a patient with metastatic lung cancer, and they were the first to proceed using CRISPR in a biomedical trial.

Whether or not the U.S. falls behind in synthetic biology and other biotechnologies is a choice our political leaders will make by neglect. Failing to fund synthetic biology would be damaging to the U.S. economy, as well as national security, both because a strong economy underwrites our military strength and diplomatic influence, and because these technologies can boost our defenses against natural and man-made biological threats. The way to counteract this is to not make cuts to biomedical and synthetic biology research funded by the U.S. government, but to redouble efforts, so that future jobs and opportunities don’t leave Americans out of a bio future.

The theme of the students’ biodesign exhibition was “the future will be grown.” But there are important questions that face us as we fund our government research agencies in the years ahead: Who, specifically, will grow that future? What will be grown? And to what end? These next several years will be formative in setting the “rules of the road” for synthetic biology and other biotechnologies. The U.S. must remain in a prime technological position and provide global leadership to ensure that synthetic biology is used for the benefit of the American public, for the benefit of U.S. national and economic security, and indeed, for the benefit of humankind.

Gigi Kwik Gronvall (ggronvall@jhu.edu) is a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and visiting faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the author of “Synthetic Biology: Safety, Security, and Promise” (2016).

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