GAO Science and Tech Spotlight Describes Benefits of Synthetic Biology and Challenges Ahead
By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a “Science & Tech Spotlight” on synthetic biology on April 17, 2023. GAO defines synthetic biology as “a multidisciplinary field of biotechnology that involves engineering the genetic material of organisms -- such as viruses, bacteria, yeast, plants, or animals -- to have new characteristics.” According to GAO, scientists are currently exploring the use of synthetic biology to address environmental challenges by engineering organisms to use carbon dioxide, produce biofuels for vehicles, and transform methane into biodegradable plastics. GAO notes that the synthetic biology market could grow from about $10 billion in 2021 to between $37 billion and $100 billion dollars by 2030. Opportunities include:
- Widely adaptable. Synthetic biology holds the potential to help diagnose and treat diseases, improve industrial processes, and address some environmental challenges;
- More equitable access to biotechnology. Some of the tools needed for synthetic biology are low-cost and widely available, which could make access to beneficial applications more equitable; and
- Conservation efforts. Synthetic biology could support endangered species conservation, for example, by altering the genes of endangered plants to make them resilient to diseases.
GAO notes the following challenges:
- Safety and security concerns. Synthetic biology could pose a significant threat to national security if it were used for nefarious purposes, such as developing new biological or chemical weapons. Additionally, the computational tools used for synthetic biology could be vulnerable to cyberthreats such as automation hacking. For example, a bad actor could manipulate or steal information and use it to create drugs, weapons, or other harmful products.
- Environmental effects. Organisms made using synthetic biology and released into the environment could have unknown, unintended, and potentially irreversible effects on ecosystems. Such effects could be widespread if, for example, these organisms negatively affected food or water systems.
- Public acceptance and access. The public may hesitate to accept certain applications of synthetic biology due to concerns about interfering with nature and about unintended effects. In addition, some medical applications could be inaccessible for some patients due to cost or location of treatment centers.
GAO concludes the “Science & Tech Spotlight” with the following policy context and questions:
- Do policymakers have adequate access to expertise and resources to evaluate the societal effects and public policy implications of synthetic biology research and development?
- How effective is the coordination among 1) domestic and 2) global stakeholders for monitoring and assessing the risks associated with advances in synthetic biology research and applications?
- Is the current regulatory framework sufficient to address ongoing and future applications and their effects without unnecessarily hindering U.S. competitiveness in synthetic biology?