Fourth Industrial Revolution

How we can deliver a better tomorrow through generative biology

Synthetic biology has promised game-changing outcomes; generative biology will unlock its true potential.

Synthetic biology has promised game-changing outcomes; generative biology will unlock its true potential. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Robert Speight
Director, CSIRO Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
Brynne Stanton
Lead, Bioeconomy, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Synthetic biology has promised to significantly improve quality of life. While the field is coalescing towards a “ChatGPT moment,” it has yet to deliver the expected societal step-change.
  • While progress in convergent digital technologies and big data is expanding synthetic biology’s scope, generative biology will provide much needed predictability and scalability.
  • By addressing key underlying barriers that have limited synthetic biology’s impact, generative biology will unlock game-changing outcomes.

Genetic biotechnologies have revolutionized society and have been delivering groundbreaking innovations for over 40 years. Some early successes include insulin production and stain-lifting enzymes for detergents. More recently, synthetic biology has accelerated biotechnological innovation, as seen in the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine and disease-resistant bananas, among many other innovations.

Still, the full potential and promise of synthetic biology (the tools and knowledge used to engineer biology) have not yet been realised and significant challenges persist. However, transformative technologies are coalescing around biology to deliver new knowledge and tools; as a result, synthetic biology will become increasingly more effective, productive, faster and cheaper to develop and scale.

In fact, we’re on the brink of an era filled with transformative possibilities from generative biology. What does this future look like, and what will it take to get us there?

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Pioneering change with generative biology

Multiple disciplines have given rise to synthetic biology but a pivotal moment for the field is now here as the maturity and convergence of technologies in other fields are transforming what is possible.

One particular driver of change is the application of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and machine learning tools to biological applications – "generative biology" is changing how we interface with biology and the outcomes it can provide.

Such innovations could drastically speed up the development of commercial outcomes, benefitting humanity and the planet. Imagine uniquely tailored pharmaceuticals, rapidly administered to the patient or environmental solutions that degrade and valorize waste within hours. Generative biology promises limitless improvements and has already started delivering game-changing outcomes.

Along those lines, there has been rapid progress, with thousands of new papers and AI biology tools emerging every month. What could have only been imagined a few years or even months ago is now becoming reality, all enabled by underlying advances in data generation, laboratory automation, computing power and AI innovations.

Such advances are not limited to the lab and have already delivered commercial wins. For example, the AI-based protein drug design company Icosovax was acquired by major pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in a deal worth over $1 billion.

Beyond pharmaceuticals, advances translate into real benefits for people and the planet. For instance, atmospheric carbon dioxide and energy from green electricity and hydrogen can now be transformed into chemicals and new protein-rich foods; China and Japan are committing to billion-dollar investments in this area.

Scaling the impact of generative biology

Also beneficial to the planet, companies are developing new ways to make and dye textiles that avoid the negative environmental impacts of current practices. Innovations that cut across computer programming and synthetic biology are transforming patient outcomes with sophisticated biological engineering approaches.

Given the strong potential of generative biology, major commercial players are coming onboard: Google, Meta, Microsoft and others are making significant investments in the space. Venture Capitalists are also taking notice, with billions of dollars flowing into new companies where generative biology is delivering greater commercial impact.

Leading computer chip manufacturers also play a critical role as superior chips provide an edge to high-performance computing applications, handling big data and implementing AI tools.

Despite greater investment and technological advancements, synthetic biology is far from delivering all it has promised.

There are many reasons why implementing new technologies for new markets or applications remains challenging, most of which are not unique to synthetic biology alone. Many new technologies often face the same hurdles when attempting to replace conventional and highly subsidized technologies across industries and markets.

Other fundamental challenges must be addressed before synthetic biology-enabled products and processes cement their status as the preferred option for business leaders and the public. Some more long-standing challenges include historically poor public awareness, regulatory uncertainty, cost and time to commercialize, the commercial immaturity of the lion’s share of synthetic biology application areas and many others.

As generative biology delivers increasing commercial successes across application areas, business cases will become stronger, investments will flow and more businesses will deploy biology as their core commercial technology across a range of scales and in diverse geographies and economies around the world.

Robert Speight, Director, CSIRO Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform

Navigating challenges and opportunities in generative biology

While the road ahead to delivering upon the full extent of synthetic biology’s promise is long, generative biology is advancing the speed of transformative breakthroughs by delivering more predictable outcomes for biology.

Furthermore, supportive regulation and policies could go a long way in “levelling the playing field” compared with historical and long-standing industries. The promise of customizable products with increased performance must also take shape in ways the end user can readily appreciate.

Through the perils and progress, one thing is clear: the synthetic biology landscape is changing. As generative biology delivers increasing commercial successes across application areas, business cases will become stronger, investments will flow and more businesses will deploy biology as their core commercial technology across a range of scales and in diverse geographies and economies around the world.

As the transformation by biology continues to gain steam, heightened efforts and increased time will be required to unlock the tech-driven bioeconomy and transition industries away from incumbent extractive processes. The rewards will be considerable, with alternatives being cheaper, more predictable and providing more effective solutions to planetary and human-centric challenges where few alternatives exist.

A flourishing planet, restoring ecosystems and biodiversity, personalized and universally available healthcare solutions, sustainable and geographically distributed manufacturing of fuels, chemicals and materials produced in a fashion that also meets society’s needs, significant advancements in information technology through energy-efficient long-term data storage using DNA and next-generation biology-based computing: thanks to generative biology, these are some of the ways that synthetic biology will increasingly deliver a better future.

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