The recent changing face of manufacturing is not just a story of large-scale mechanisation and digitisation. Since Neolithic times, humans have used living cells to ferment wine and leaven bread, and synthetic biologists are now modifying and using cells in much more powerful ways.

At Imperial College in London, Paul Freemont, founder of the Centre for Synthetic Biology, describes the potential of synthetic biology with the zeal usually demonstrated by Silicon Valley’s technology evangelists. “There will be, in my opinion, no technological limit,” he asserts. “Only utility and societal acceptability will hold this technology back.”

Genetic engineering has been around since the 1970s – it is what is used to produce the insulin injected by most diabetics, and to generate a small number of other successful pharmaceuticals and genetically modified crop strains, for example – but according to Freemont, “there is no real engineering in the traditional approach to genetic engineering”.

As a result, most genetic engineering applications have been so bespoke and used in such small quantities that they have failed commercially.

Biology presents a significant engineering challenge, since living systems are dynamic, non-linear, evolving and replicating, and the conditions inside any single living cell can change dramatically at different times. A genetic engineering procedure that works, for example, in a skin cell may not work in one from a lung; it is therefore very difficult to create a “copy exactly” process.

Freemont recalls how insights from construction and process engineering made him change his approach to biology. He “saw a completely different way of thinking and problem-solving. I realised that I could do something useful with my biological knowledge, not simply solve fundamental problems to understand how molecular biology works.”

Since that moment, Freemont has contributed to the creation of the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biologists have invented a range of tools that allow them to compose and edit genetic sequences with a newfound precision, reproducibility and reliability. They have adopted the tools of process engineering to introduce rigorous standards and protocols that make the results of their actions more predictable.

Biology is becoming an established part of engineering and, if this rapid progress continues and synthetic biology succeeds in unravelling the complexity of cellular metabolism, the implications could be profound.

As Freemont explains, “Evolution is just one end point of billions of years of trial and error;” the tools of synthetic biology would allow bioengineers to rapidly design and test many different adjustments to an organism’s genetic instructions, effectively accelerating and directing the course of evolution.

The first products of synthetic biology are now coming onto the market and include a mountaineering jacket, a tie and an ultra-light running shoe that have all been woven from spider silk. Unlike the spider-silk stockings given to the French King Louis XIV in 1709, which were made by meticulously harvesting silk from hundreds of individual spiders, no spiders were involved in the production of these new garments. Instead, this silk was produced by bacteria or yeast whose genomes had been re-engineered to make them produce silk proteins on an enormous scale.

This has many more important applications, since spider silk’s strength-to-weight ratio and elasticity cannot be matched by any other man-made material; if each strand in a spider’s web was scaled up to just a millimetre in diameter, it would be strong enough to stop a speeding train.

Many other new and innovative products are also on the way. Biologists believe that it will soon be common practice to create reprogrammed immune cells that seek out and destroy cancers, and there has been technical success in re-engineering algae so that it can convert sunlight into energy-dense liquid fuel.

Synthetic bacteria can also produce a range of high-performance bioplastics, which cannot yet compete with the cost of their fossil fuel-derived equivalents, but have the big advantage of not adding to anthropogenic carbon emissions, a factor that is becoming hugely important.

Society needs to be ready to accept the new creations of synthetic biology. This acceptance cannot be taken for granted and recent history shows that rational arguments do not necessarily win the day. When genetically modified (GM) crops were introduced at the end of the last century, they were met with widespread hostility. Many believed that they and the farming practices that they encouraged were unsafe and would severely affect our health and damage our natural ecosystems. Although those concerns were not supported by evidence, they were nonetheless passionately held.

By dismissing people’s heartfelt concerns out of hand, the scientists and businesses that developed these crops stoked further outrage. Their failure to engage in a more open and constructive dialogue fuelled concern and made the licensing of GM crops a risky political issue in many parts of the world, including the European Union, which now has the most restrictive licensing regulations on the planet.

Future success in this area will require engagement on the basis of society’s concerns and not on the basis of business’s concerns or of scientists’ views of the available evidence. If this does not happen, advances in synthetic biology will create greater antagonism and slow the development of the technology and the delivery of its benefits to health and well-being.

An additional factor in all of these debates is that potent pathogens could be made using synthetic biology, for biological warfare. This requires an extraordinarily high level of technical knowhow, a barrier that, for the time being, should preclude rogue actors from manufacturing them. However, biologists like Freemont will need to work hard to show that they can maintain control over their creations. Safeguards will be needed to prevent the creation of dangerous new life forms and diseases, and the new generation of biologists will need to be educated to observe high ethical and practical standards, in order to convince society of the long-term safety of their work.

Make, Think, Imagine

Excerpted with permission from Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering The Future Of Civilisation, John Browne, Bloomsbury.