Bioengineering opportunities and risks

Article by Neil Clark

MAJOR issues that could face industry, society and the environment as a result of the growing bioengineering sector have been outlined in a new report.

Led by the University of Cambridge, the open access study consulted an international team of experts from industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community. They were asked about the top 20 global issues that may emerge from the fields of synthetic biology and bioengineering.

Risks that could occur within the next five years were highlighted, including artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels; alongside a 5–10 year horizon, such as producing vaccines and human therapies in plants; and those over the longer term, like the disruption of pharmaceutical markets by community bio-labs.

While the above opportunities provide a chance to solve real-world challenges such as pollution, disease, and inequality, the report cautions that risks must also be anticipated and suitably managed.

For example, community bio-labs driven by open source technology could lead to niche therapies becoming available in regional markets, which may be currently seen as unprofitable. However, this could also lead to disruption of supply chains, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

The authors of the paper hope that issues identified may be of interest to researchers, businesses and policy makers in sectors such as health, energy, agriculture and the environment.

“As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance,” said lead author of the study Christian Boehm, research affiliate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. 

“People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus – whatever the public health benefits – could damage the field for many years to come,” Boehm added.


Article by Neil Clark

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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