- Bioengineering brings with it both huge potential for good, and risks to regulate.
- Edible vaccines, new approaches to treat disabilities and better carbon sequestration are among the promising innovations.
Bioengineering is a discipline that applies engineering design and principles to biological systems. Some examples of this fusion are artificial organs or limbs, the genetic synthesis of new organisms, gene editing, the computerized simulation of surgery, medical imaging technology and tissue/organ regeneration.
Like any other technology, bioengineering has damaging potential, whether it be through misuse, weaponization or accidents. This risk can create significant threats with large potential consequences to public health, privacy or to environmental safety.
Approaches such as genomic synthesis have over recent years dropped precipitously in price. This has triggered a boom in bioengineering research and broadened its applications. Foreseeing the impacts of bioengineering technologies is urgently needed. This was the driving force behind a recent study led by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge where they set to analyze emerging risks in this field.
How can we predict the future?
A method commonly referred to as the ‘Delphi technique’ was used, bringing together a group of 38 experts from six continents and 13 countries to suggest, discuss and vote for the most impactful emerging issues in bioengineering. Such exercises are critical in ensuring societal awareness and preparedness for future threats and opportunities.
The study resulted in a priority list of 20 issues on the horizon that will shape the future of bioengineering, as below. All these issues have implications for academics, policymakers and the general public and range from neuronal probes for human enhancement to carbon sequestration.
These issues will not unfold in isolation: they are likely to coalesce. Based on the issues identified, we sketched out potential future scenarios for readers to get acquainted with some of the different bioengineering technologies.
Future potential scenario #1: within 5 years
Biotechnological discoveries are increasingly facilitated by automated and roboticised, private 'cloud labs'. Some of these labs construct drought-tolerant genetically modified plants that are bred for a warmer world. However, the effects on biodiversity and ecosystems have not been fully studied, therefore, there is uncertainty about how to deploy them.
These concerns catch the attention of billionaires who start donating to science. This causes a new influx of funding for new scientific projects, among them: protein engineering and machine learning, leading to the creation of novel compounds within the industry (e.g. new catalysts for un-natural reactions) and medical applications (e.g. selectively destroying damaged tissue which is key for some diseases). In parallel, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons starts including new substances on their list after identifying that some of these newly created proteins have the potential to be used as weapons due to their high lethality.
Future potential scenario #2: within 10 years
Biomedical research has been enhanced, and now cell therapies are helping patients with rare diseases, neuronal probes are curing disabilities, citizens are vaccinated by consuming edible vaccines in plants and Phage therapy is used as an alternative to antibiotic treatment, tackling antimicrobial resistance that has been identified as a potential global catastrophic risk.
Healthcare is facing a tug of war between democratization and elite therapies. The Open-Pharma movement has spread and the monopoly of Big Pharma is being undermined by small lab producers of drugs such as insulin.
Other advances are equally promising but run ethical issues in both human enhancement and exacerbating health inequities. In a world of mounting inequalities, the question of who benefits and misses out from bioengineering advances looms large. In parallel, some governments collected genomic data of all citizens in compulsory programs. Unfortunately, some of these genomic databases were hacked and the genomic data of millions of citizens was sold through “black markets” and blockchain. Some companies start using this data as part of their hiring decisions.
Future potential scenario #3: beyond 10 years
The increasing impacts of climate change has focused bioengineering on the sustainability challenge. Plastic and many energy or material intensive products are being phased out in favor of bio-based materials made from renewable plant feedstock.
This is driven by both a new fashion taste for bio-clothing, higher carbon prices and the introduction of nitrogen pricing in 34 countries.
Meanwhile, the IPCC is conducting a special report on the risks and benefits of plant strains which sequester carbon more effectively, rapidly and can even aid solar photovoltaics (the production of electricity from light) and light-sustained biomanufacturing. Due to political unrest and the spread of fake news, citizens are scared about this approach and protest against it. Approval is not granted.
The role of governments, society and academics
These issues will shape the future of bioengineering and must shape modern discussions about its political, societal and economic impact. We need critical thinking to understand what they are, what their impact is and how they are related, with ethical and regulatory frameworks, climate change, inequalities, technological convergence and the misuse of technology, in order to drive informed policy decisions.
As academics we feel the need to bring science closer to society, therefore, we decided to turn our scientific results into a comic, as below, with the aim to help us communicate these findings to all stakeholders. It is now your turn to evaluate the potential future of bioengineering and decide on the actions that we need to take today.
This article is based on the recent paper "Bioengineering Horizon Scan 2020" published in eLife.