The time may come when we can use these techniques to program functionality into living organisms in the same way that we can program a computer to perform specific tasks. However, this is profoundly challenging because of the extreme complexity of living organisms. Editing an organism's DNA has direct effects on the proteins it synthesises, but we are not yet able to reliably and swiftly map genotypes to phenotypes — that is, the effects of this editing on its overall traits and behaviour are far more indirect and difficult to predict. Here, AI is expected to play a crucial role in enabling “rational design”.3
If harnessed to its full potential, synthetic biology could radically remake many industries and sectors of society. It may help mitigate climate change, for example, through engineering of organisms that pull CO2 from the atmosphere. It also has great potential to assist the move towards a circular bioeconomy, reducing the exploitation of natural resources and the associated harms to the Earth system through increasing emphasis on reuse and recycling of existing biological products.4
A key challenge for synthetic biologists is to create universal platforms on which research and development can be carried out.5 Such standardised systems — analogous to the operating systems of computers or the protocols which underpin the internet, and thus sometimes dubbed the “biotic internet” — will accelerate progress by making synthetic biology's tools much more accessible. The aim is to make synthetic biology a widespread and accepted cultural practice, just as computer coding has already become.
Selection of GESDA best reads and further key reports
In 2022, Schmidt Futures published a useful report into the US bioeconomy.6 “Synthetic Living Machines: A New Window on Life” provides a review of the 2021 status of bioengineering of novel multicellular living bodies.7 “Future Trends in Synthetic Biology — A Report” is a 2019 synthesis of a conference on the field's direction of travel.8 A 2018 National Academies report discussed possible malicious uses of synthetic biology.9