Knowledge is a powerful tool that can help transform resources. There are two kinds of known entities that can create knowledge:
- Biological Evolution - knowledge that exists in the universe which evolves through variations consisting of mutations or random changes in genes, and natural selection that causes those variant genes to spread through the population.
- Human Creativity - explanatory knowledge that evolves through variations consisting of conjectures or guesses and selections made by criticism and experiment
Biology is the oldest form of knowledge on Earth. It constitutes molecular repositories of instructions required to build any life form. The origin of life, according to Richard Dawkins, can be considered to have occurred with the arrival of molecules able to replicate themselves(a set of instructions). Evolution can be attributed to genes selfishly propagating themselves using these instructions. This process is arguably random.
Human knowledge, on the other hand, is explanatory and has a greater reach over biological knowledge. For most of human history, we relied on non-biological technologies such as fire, minerals and chemistry. While these technologies paved the way for progress, they also gave rise to unforeseen externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change and microplastics leading to water as well as land pollution.
The Haber-Bosch process is a remarkable example of a grand shift in human history that enabled us to feed the world which also became the leading greenhouse gas emitter among all chemical processes. The same applies to fossil fuels that powered machines to make us more productive but accelerated global warming. The externalities of these inventions couldn’t have been predicted.
However, with advances in SynBio, we can now
- Design processes and products that are sustainable i.e biomaterials
- Convert wastes or emissions into feed such as CO2 into food or fuel
Synthetic Biology or synbio is to redesign biological systems or organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. It is basically using DNA(software) to write simple LEGO like functional components (hardware) and run them in a cell. Now through the natural process of replication, the software is able to create its own hardware. (Pause and think about it for a moment.)
In Peter Thiel’s terms, while we saw a huge innovation in the world of bits(software), we are on the cusp of seeing radical innovations in the world of atoms(hardware).
There is a macro-level trend that seems to be common between the evolution of human knowledge and technological innovation. At the biological level,
Level 1 - basic hardware - Evolution of neocortex which gave rise to:
Level 2 - software(human creativity, communication) - unique cognitive functions that transcend basic hardware capabilities which lead to hardware requiring an upgrade:
Level 3 - improve/transform the hardware - edit humans(curing diseases) and integrate humans with machines - BMIs to keep up with technological innovation
With respect to human innovation:
Level 1 - Basic Hardware - We built and leveraged machines/tools to make us productive which gave rise to the need for:
Level 2 - software(computer programs and DNA synthesizing) - that helped us understand and share information about the world which is enabling us to:
Level 3 - improve/transform the hardware - design and build better systems as well as materials that are sustainable, highly efficient and cheaper
SynBio is already enabling us to transform low-tech industries into high-tech industries such as food, cosmetics and fashion. And this is possible because of advances in Level-2 technologies - Machine Learning, automation, DNA sequencing and synthesizing.
Humans have leveraged biology as technology in the past and we have now started to expand the possibilities. Eg: Fermentation of organisms like yeast has been used to make bread and brew beer for centuries and now companies are using fermentation to create fabrics such as artificial spider silk.
Natural processes and systems have gradually evolved over years to be biodegradable and sustainable. With human knowledge, we can mimic these processes and systems to create novel materials with new use cases that are designed for improved performance, sustainable, biodegradable and produced in a way that emits significantly less greenhouse gases.
These transformations can span across industries:
- Healthcare: Perhaps, the oldest and obvious industry where bio-based applications have a strong foot. Biomolecules, the field of cellular processes and functions, can be edited through gene therapy, CRISPR etc to treat diseases and perhaps even cure aging. Understanding viruses (despite being the major reason behind pandemics) are also becoming ever more important in healthcare research, for instance as a possible treatment method for genetic diseases and to limit pandemics in the future.
Life Sciences: Leveraging complex biological systems through stemcell technology, fermentation processes, etc. to redesign commercial products.
Textile: Artificial fibres through fermentation that utilizes sugars and microbes, rather than petrochemical or animal-derived raw materials, or environmentally safe and sustainable ink products grown from algae for dyeing.
Bioplastics: Alternate high-performance synthetic biodegradable plastics that replace petroleum-based products.
Biocomputing: Using biological systems to store data and compute. While there are companies building DNA-based data storage, protein-based computing is still far-fetched. Brain-machine interfaces that are invasive like Kernel and Neuralink or non-invasive like Neurable and Ctrl-Labs(acquired by Facebook) will open a plethora of opportunities in both curing neurodegenerative diseases and unlocking new possibilities.
By operating at the atomic level to build molecules, synBio provides a level of precision to design solutions like never before. Combined with the convergence of technologies like AI, new ways of computing, automation etc, atomic-level precise manufacturing will help us to both
a) create new solutions that completely transform the value chain as well as
b) better assess the second-order and third-order implications of these technologies
Eg: It is known that bioplastics currently made of Polylactic acid(PLA) can potentially alter the pH level of soils if left to biodegrade and may affect the fertility of the soil or have effects on marine life. Additionally, if some of them don’t degrade for centuries as claimed, recyclability could be a better option in the short term until new alternatives are found.
The field is promising and looks like the road to a sustainable future relies heavily on Synbio. Most of the products may fail due to over-optimistic assessment of technical capabilities and customer inertia. In addition, synbio products must compete with alternate ways of producing materials or fuels that may have a century’s head start and are widely accepted. On the other hand, SynBio is subject to both unreasonable expectations and irrational fear. Like any technology, if used unethically or maliciously, manipulating biology could become a Pandora’s box that unleashes unforeseen consequences.
However, with enormous research, funding and customer demand driving both the technology and the market as well as transparent development and debate around the subject, there are reasons to be optimistic about a sustainable future.
SynBioBeta offers the best resources around SynBio tracking the progress story.