Barack Obama recently pledged to establish a $150 billion “Apollo project” for energy independence. A new field known as synthetic biology presents one of the most promising opportunities to achieve his goal, but influential interest groups within his own party are fighting to kill this technology in its cradle.
Just as the first wave of biotechnology revolutionized agriculture and medicine, scientists today herald synthetic biology as a second wave of innovation capable of solving society’s most pressing challenges. In the laboratory, researchers are developing customized organisms with powerful new capabilities. These modified cells can be programmed to fight diseases, create new wonder materials for manufacturing or produce an abundant source of clean, renewable energy.
In only five years, synthetic biology has spurred more than $1 billion in private investment. Yet according to a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans have never heard of it. This will soon change.
In 2010, for instance, one company will begin marketing a cheap, effective malaria treatment produced by custom-tailored baker’s yeast. Another startup announced in September that it had successfully generated high-grade jet fuel from algae. Future applications for synthetic biology are limited only by one’s imagination, but some critics believe scientists shouldn’t dream.
Fearing that man-made “frankencells” will threaten the ecosystem, environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have labeled synthetic biology “genetic engineering on steroids,” and condemned it as “a grave biosafety threat to people and the planet.” Some activists have already called for a complete research moratorium. These voices will wield considerable power with the next administration.
Only one week after the election, a think tank founded and led by Obama’s transition chief, John Podesta, published a report recommending swift action to address “the most profound challenge to government oversight of technology in human history.” As with previous administrations, the scientific community again finds itself fighting for the freedom to innovate.
A Nobel laureate, two members of the National Academy of Sciences, and two recipients of the MacArthur “genius” award recently warned policymakers that impeding the progress of synthetic biology could jeopardize monumental discoveries.
After an exhaustive 20-month review, another group of 18 world-leading academic, legal and regulatory experts determined that any theoretical risks can be effectively addressed without government interference.
Synthetic biology is only the latest cause in a three-decade crusade against biotechnology. With almost religious fervor, some groups oppose all genetic engineering on principle, without any consideration of facts or evidence. In reality, 12 million farmers worldwide grow biotech crops, and biotech drugs treat more than 250 million patients every year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there has never been a case of environmental harm.
Synthetic biology does not reinvent biotechnology, but only makes today’s practices faster, cheaper and more powerful. As costs plummet and investments surge, entrepreneurs will drive a technology revolution that rivals the birth of the Internet. In an age of do-it-yourself biology, startups that once required expensive laboratories can launch in a Silicon Valley garage.
Synthetic biology offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform modern medicine, generate clean, renewable biofuels and create millions of green collar jobs. The president-elect must select advisers who place science above ideology. If he does not, then his promises of change will mean more of the same.