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Experts Explain | What is synthetic biology? | Futurist Amy Webb

While you may not be familiar with the term, the chances are you’ve already encountered synthetic biology in your everyday life, according to futurist, author and assistant professor at New York University, Amy Webb.

Synthetic biology is concerned with engineering and redesigning biological systems that don’t already exist in nature. And it’s already being used in applications ranging from making foods like plant-based burgers and sourdough bread, to healthcare developments including the mRNA vaccination used to combat the COVID-19 virus.

Casting an eye to the future, Webb says social biology has the potential to create cells that take instructions and can edit the human body, which could change life as we know it. Importantly, she is referring to the near future rather than a distant maybe.

Imagine a world where a future synthetic DNA could be developed for sustainable agriculture, microbe-made chemicals, petroleum replacements and restoration of damaged ecosystems … the potential is endless.

But how can scientists ensure the vast potential of programming the living world becomes a force for good?

Watch Amy Webb speaking at the Global Technology Governance Summit in 2021.


Open source data

Observers see the need to democratize the technology to avoid creating a two-tier healthcare system, made up of those with access to bioengineering solutions and those without.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum launched the Global Future Council on Synthetic Biology, a forum aiming to explore how the new science could benefit humankind and reach agreement on ways to establish its efficient, equitable and ethical implementation.

Ensuring the benefits of synthetic biology are available to all rests on sharing data. An open-source approach to knowledge sharing – rather than locking away scientific advances behind patents – will give scientists the freedom to embrace advances in research that could help both developed and emerging economies resolve social and economic challenges.

However, spreading the benefits of synthetic biology globally requires an enabling environment with skilled scientists, well-equipped labs, reliable supply chains and responsive regulation and funding.

For advances in biotech to work for the benefit of all, the world must embrace new forms of collaboration and take steps to establish a governance framework to ensure agreement on how the tech is – and is not – used.

Watch more of the Experts Explain series here.

From 27-29 June 2023, the World Economic Forum is convening the 14th Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, People’s Republic of China. More than 1,500 global leaders, policymakers, civil society, innovators and technology pioneers will gather to discuss global transformation challenges and opportunities.

Find out more about the meeting and its programme for 2023.

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