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Rapid advances in biological engineering are poised to dramatically impact the economy. Significant improvements in key technologies used to study and manipulate biological systems at the molecular level—in particular, tools for sequencing and synthesizing DNA—are opening the door to a new era of genome engineering and design. This report examines ways in which these advances in technology could affect the U.S. economy over the next two decades.

Section 2 provides an assessment of the rate of improvement in the performance of key biological technologies and evaluates the potential implications based on analogies to the development of other major technology systems. New approaches to biological engineering are recapitulating developmental stages and pathways experienced in other fields, including aviation, industrial engineering, automotive design, and computer software. Major technological and market trends elaborated in Section 2 include the following:

  • The productivity of DNA sequencing technologies, measured in terms of the number of base pairs sequenced per person per day for a researcher operating multiple machines, has increased more than 500-fold over the past decade (Figure 1-1). At this rate, productivity is doubling every 24 months. Over the same period, the costs of sequencing have declined by more than three orders of magnitude from $1.00 per base pair to less than $0.001 per base pair.
  • Productivity of DNA synthesis technologies has increased 700-fold over the past decade, doubling every 12 months. Costs of gene synthesis have fallen from approximately $30 per base pair to less than $1 per base pair over the same period. At the same time, the accuracy of gene synthesis technologies has improved significantly.
  • The global market for DNA sequencing technology and services exceeded $7 billion in 2006. The market for synthesis reagents and synthesis services reached nearly $1 billion.

Figure 1-1: Productivity Improvements in DNA Synthesis and Sequencing

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Looking ahead, ongoing improvements in the performance of key enabling technologies, including DNA sequencing and synthesis, are likely to deliver significant further increases in productivity and reductions in cost over the next decade. Intensifying global competition among companies and countries providing sequencing and synthesis services, coupled with abundant technological innovation, is driving the rapid diffusion of new technology. In turn, the overall market for these services is growing rapidly and is likely to continue to expand at rates as high as 10—20% annually. These trends will have significant direct economic impacts within the biotechnology industry itself and across the economy at large.

The implications of these trends for the U.S. economy are explored in Section 3. The combinatorial engineering approaches that have transformed the fields of electrical engineering and software design are now being leveraged to accelerate biological engineering. Already, these techniques are being utilized to produce high value products for a variety of commercial purposes, and the range of potential applications is huge. However, the continuing “buildout” of these technologies will be shaped in large measure by an array of outstanding legal, ethical, economic, social, regulatory and political questions and issues that have yet to be resolved.

The ways in which these perplexing questions are addressed by governments and societies around the world will have a significant affect on the future impact of biological engineering on the economy and the earth’s living systems.

Figure 1-2: An Inflection Point for Biological Technology

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New enabling technologies, especially in sequencing and synthesis, coupled with the development of new approaches to biological engineering, have defined an inflection point in advance of biotechnological capabilities, and could mark the beginning of a new technology revolution in the economy at large.

This shift could be comparable in scope to the information technology revolution and other great eras in the history of technology. A set of new breakthroughs and developments at academic research centers and a small number of private companies could open the door to a surprisingly rapid buildout of biological technologies with the power to revolutionize many sectors of the economy.

By analyzing these developments in the context of historical patterns of technology development in the economy, we draw the following conclusions:

  • From an economic perspective, the real impact of technology revolutions often lags by several decades behind the emergence of fundamental enabling technologies.
  • If the new approaches to biological engineering now being explored are successful in creating systems of easily combined biological parts, the potential for serial innovation and a rapid buildout of useful technologies is high.
  • The buildout of biological technology will require overcoming formidable technical challenges, including understanding and managing highly complex biological systems, controlling the evolution of these systems, and mastering feedbacks and interactive effects across many different scales.
  • The biological engineering revolution, like all technology revolutions before it, will be shaped as much by social and economic adaptations to technology as by the technology itself.
  • The macroeconomic effects of technology revolutions—often measured in terms of productivity improvements, effects on balance of trade, or other such metrics—appear late in the cycle of buildout and diffusion.
  • The strong U.S. synthetic biology cluster could be a long-term driver of competitive advantage for the biotech sector and the U.S. economy in general.

Section 4 explores three industry segments that are in the vanguard of applying these emerging technologies:

  • In the chemicals sector, increasingly powerful tools and methods for metabolic pathway engineering could open the door to production of a wide variety of chemical products, including chemicals currently extracted from natural sources, pharmaceutical products and pharmaceutical intermediates, and new biodegradable plastics and other materials. These new technologies could enable the penetration rate for biological production processes to reach 15–20% of the global chemicals industry by 2015.
  • Genome engineering and design technologies also promise to play important roles in the development of new energy production and conversion methods. The near-term contributions from these technologies are likely to be significant in accelerating the growth of the liquid biofuels industry, which could increase from $22 billion in revenues globally in 2006 to as much as $150 billion by 2020. In the longer term, bio-based innovations in the energy sector could include new processes for photobiological hydrogen production and other new energy conversion systems and pathways.
  • In the vaccines market, synthetic vaccines could account for as much as one-third of the global vaccine market, taking into consideration the rapid growth of markets for novel and therapeutic vaccines and the penetration of synthetic vaccine production technologies into conventional vaccine categories. A fast-response synthetic vaccine against influenza could have tremendous value in reducing the impact of a pandemic.

Finally, Section 5 explores the future of genome engineering and design by considering four scenarios, each of which is based on different assumptions about key factors and events that could shape the future evolution of the technology and its integration and application in economic systems. Figure 1-3 summarizes the building blocks used to build the scenarios, the driving forces, predetermined elements, major uncertainties and prime movers that characterize the system. Using these “scenario elements,” we develop plausible scenario stories that explore a range of different outcomes. Figure 1-4 illustrates the key assumptions that define the scenarios.

Figure 1-3: The Scenario Elements

Four types of scenario elements set the context for the scenarios: driving forces, critical uncertainties, predetermined elements, and prime movers.

figure 3

Figure 1-4: The Scenario Logic

The landscape of the scenarios is framed by major questions about government policies and the rate of advance of biological engineering technologies. We use assumptions about these uncertainties to create a set of four possible scenarios.

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The four scenarios are summarized below:

Underworld—A New Era of Prohibition

  • Genome engineering and design tools and technology evolve rapidly from 2007–2010. After an accident involving a synthesized pathogen in 2010, governments impose strict new laws to try to limit access to advanced biotech tools and to regulate those who are engaged in research in this field. Efforts to prohibit use of the technology are largely ineffective, however, since the tools are cheap and readily available and know-how is already widely diffused. The illegal drug industry uses the technology to engineer new and better pathways for producing narcotics and to develop new designer drugs. When an influenza pandemic strikes, biohackers use instructions posted on the Internet to manufacture and supply unauthorized, but highly effective, DNA vaccines.
  • Key questions: How effectively could governments regulate the use of genome engineering technology? What would be the consequences of efforts to prohibit or severe restriction of research in this field? What are the advantages and disadvantages of widely diffused access to the technology?

The Gilded Lab—Slow but Steady Progress

  • Synthetic biology advances steadily as a research tool, receiving significant support from governments and the private sector, but the engineering approach to biology meets with challenging obstacles. These challenges include managing complex interactions within cells under varying conditions and controlling the evolution of engineered biological systems. Engineering useful new biological functions remains costly and complex. While some scientific breakthroughs are achieved in areas where sizeable research efforts can be funded, technical challenges forestall the rapid and widespread application of new innovations in energy, chemicals, and other industries.
  • Key questions: What are the obstacles that make it difficult to cheaply and reliably engineer biological systems? How quickly can these obstacles be overcome?

Modular Life—The Genovation Explosion

  • Advances in biological technology and knowledge open a new era of genome design and innovation. The modular design and construction of biological systems from well-described parts and devices enables a rapid “buildout” of new biological technology. Government policies, driven by deepening concerns about climate change and other environmental problems, provide incentives to accelerate the adoption of new, clean biotechnologies in basic industries. Public opinion is generally favorable toward the new technology, but many people are uneasy about some of the new applications of the technology that raise ethical and social questions.
  • Key questions: What must be achieved to make it possible to quickly and reliably engineer biological systems? What factors could accelerate or slow adoption of these new technologies? What “social technologies” could pave the way for the understanding and integration of new biological technologies while averting their misuse?

Barricades—A New Manhattan Project

  • The world faces intensifying geopolitical tensions and the reemergence of a new kind of cold war mentality as fundamentalism and nationalism are on the rise. The U.S. government imposes stringent restrictions on biological research and development activities to prevent dual-use technology from diffusing to rival nations and terrorist organizations. Following the discovery that North Korea’s government has developed and used advanced biological weapons, the U.S. launches a massive biodefense program analogized to the Manhattan Project. Private and academic research in synthetic biology dwindles as the government largely takes control of the field. Outside the U.S., however, many governments allow and even actively support biological engineering research for economic and, in some cases, military purposes.
  • Key questions: How might genome engineering and design be affected by geopolitical tensions and an atmosphere of global insecurity? What are the implications of government dominance of research and development for biological engineering?

The scenarios underscore the degree to which the economic and environmental impacts of genome engineering and design depend on social and cultural adaptations, public policy, and institutional responses. Given the rapid global dissemination of these technologies, maintaining workable frameworks for matters ranging from patent laws to safety regulations will require international cooperation and dialogue.

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