View from the Academy: Engineering the future of biology

3 min read

investment in engineeringDr Hayaatun Sillem, Chief Executive Designate of the Royal Academy of Engineering, explains why engineering biology is coming of age as the next horizon for the discipline, whose start-ups are employing more engineers and computer scientists than biologists

Earlier this year, the Institution of Engineering and Technology launched a new journal focused on Engineering Biology. This marked a coming of age for a discipline that has developed rapidly over the last decade, but has garnered less attention than other disruptive technologies such as robotics and autonomous systems or 3D printing. However, its potential for transformative impact is no less significant and the Academy has launched a study to explore how the UK can capitalise on its world-class research activity in engineering biology and capture maximum value as the technology heads towards industrial-scale commercialisation.

Engineering biology, as the name suggests, was born out of the recognition that applying rigorous engineering principles to the design of biological systems could transform our ability to develop or adapt biologically-based parts, devices and systems. As a rapidly evolving discipline, there is a live debate regarding definitions and terminology. To date, the field has most commonly been referred to as ‘synthetic biology’. However, the term engineering biology is gaining in popularity and better reflects the breadth of technologies involved and focus on industrialisation.

engineering biology

The emergence of this field has been underpinned by landmark developments in enabling technologies such as our ability to both read (sequence) and write (synthesise) genetic material. The cost of sequencing a human-sized genome has fallen dramatically from around $100m in 2001 to around $1k today1 — a rate of change that substantially outpaces Moore’s Law — and the cost and accuracy of DNA synthesis have improved significantly in recent years too. In addition, the rapid increase in the availability of high-power computing has supported the development of the quantitative techniques that underpin engineering biology, while advanced automation of laboratory processes has facilitated the large-scale standardisation that is also needed. Recent ground-breaking advances in our ability to edit genetic material – often referred to as ‘CRISPR/Cas9’ technology — promise further significant developments in engineering biology in the years ahead.

The Academy’s involvement in engineering biology dates back to 2009, when it published the first major policy report on synthetic biology. Since then, the UK has become a world leader in engineering biology research, investing around £300 million over the last decade, a sum exceeded only by the US. Numerous other countries, including Singapore and China, are also investing increasingly in engineering biology. The key challenge now for the global engineering biology community is to demonstrate that the excitement over the potential of this technology is justified, and that promising research findings can be converted into industrial scale impact and tangible societal benefits within the near term

There are encouraging signs that engineering biology is already starting to support jobs and growth within the UK. The recent UK Synthetic Biology Start Up Survey identified a rapidly developing innovation ecosystem, much of it centred around technologies (and skills) developed in UK universities. According to the Survey, 146 UK start-ups were created in this field between 2000 and 2016, over half of which were university spin-outs. Major investment by UK corporates has been less evident to date, but established companies across a range of industries are actively exploring the potential of engineering biology. Examples of promising applications include accelerated drug development, stronger, lighter, biodegradable alternatives to today’s polymers, and new tools to transform waste into biofuel and other useful products.

As with all emerging technologies, public acceptability and regulatory frameworks need careful consideration. Public engagement activity conducted to date suggests that awareness of engineering (or synthetic) biology is relatively low. While there is excitement and optimism over the potential benefits of the technology, there is also some concern over the opportunity for misuse and the risk of negative environmental and health impacts. An effective and transparent regulatory framework, along with sustained engagement with both the public and the media, are essential for the successful and responsible development of engineering biology in the UK.

One distinctive feature of engineering biology is that it is inherently multidisciplinary, having been created through the convergence of engineering approaches with the biological domain. This can pose a challenge when it comes to developing the skills pipeline for engineering biology, with education and training still relatively siloed across higher and further education. Early adopters of the trend towards such multidisciplinarity are reaping rewards. For example, Imperial College London’s Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation is finding that demand for its undergraduate modules and Masters courses on engineering biology is vibrant and broadly based. Meanwhile the global appeal of engineering biology to STEM students is clearly demonstrated by the popularity of the impressive iGEM competition, which encourages students to work together to build genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts. In 2016, 300 teams from five continents participated, producing work of an extraordinarily high standard, with the team from Imperial College ultimately taking home the top undergraduate prize.

It was recently observed at a conference on engineering biology that many biotech start-ups now employ more engineers and computer scientists than biologists. Engineering biology is ripe with opportunity, and it is engineers who may well determine the extent to which we unlock the potential of this exciting new field.