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Engineering biology plan is bold but vigilant

Image: UK Government [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

UK approach to transformative technology will be pro-innovation and pro-safety, says cabinet minister Michelle Donelan

In the landscape of technological advancements, where artificial intelligence (AI) currently dominates the narrative, there is a less-discussed yet just as extraordinary field—engineering biology. This ground-breaking discipline has the potential to redefine our world in ways previously unimaginable, from transforming medicine to addressing environmental challenges. 

Engineering biology, at its heart, is about using DNA as a tool to shape the world. By reading and writing this fundamental language of life, scientists will be able to tailor treatments to our individual genetic codes, promising more effective and precise therapies, reducing side effects and enabling longer, healthier lives.

Beyond healthcare, and as the world focuses on COP28 in Dubai, engineering biology can be a pivotal partner in combating climate change and advancing environmental conservation. Scientists are engineering microbes that can produce new biofuels, non-polluting dyes, plastics, chemicals and foods. We can build bacteria that breaks down pollutants, and even improve trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide.  

Engineering biology can revolutionise agriculture by creating modified plants that are more resilient, nutritious and sustainable. From drought-resistant crops to bio-fortified grains, its tools have the potential to feed the world in a changing climate.

Every one of these breakthroughs addresses environmental concerns and provides sustainable solutions to those around the world who seek and deserve improved standards of living.  

Keeping pace

As technological progress gathers speed, so must our ability to keep pace with it and capture its benefits. Government must encourage and enable society to prosper—giving the UK an edge in the global race for investment and talent—while providing the frameworks that will ensure this happens safely, ethically and fairly.  

For these reasons and more, today the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is publishing a National Vision for Engineering Biology. This is a bold, optimistic plan to create a broad, rich ecosystem; commercialising the wealth of opportunities that stem from this technology and its underlying science.

The plan has six priorities: world-leading R&D, infrastructure, talent and skills, regulations and standards, adoption in the economy, and trustworthy and responsible innovation. It also recognises that engineering biology does not exist in isolation but interacts with other critical technologies in a complex manner. 

For example, as semiconductors shrink ever smaller, biology and silicon begin to interact. You can see this in the pioneering work of businesses such as Cambridge-based Evonetix, which uses advanced computer chips to ‘print’ great lengths of DNA. This can be used for life-saving mRNA vaccines and antibody therapies.

Meanwhile, quantum sensing is providing fresh insights into how biology works at the smallest scales, revealing changes at the molecular and atomic level in unprecedented detail.  

At the frontier

However, the most significant changes are happening thanks at the convergence of engineering biology and AI.   

Take the pioneering work of Google DeepMind. Three years ago, scientists in their AlphaFold programme made dramatic advances on the 60-year-old problem of predicting protein structure, using AI to predict the shapes of hundreds of thousands of proteins.

Last year, they reached 200 million, in a database encompassing almost every protein ever known. That database, put in the hands of millions of scientists across the world, has let us advance the fight against global diseases, enabling a new vaccine against malaria and breakthrough treatments for liver cancer.  

Oxford-based company Exscientia is using AI to develop drugs to treat life-threatening conditions. They were the first company to develop a drug molecule designed completely by artificial intelligence.  

But we also need to be vigilant and proactive in managing the new and profound risks that this fusion of two extremely powerful technologies could create, grappling with the opportunities and risks that arise in the connections within a family of fast-developing technologies whose potential we do not yet fully understand. 

What codes and frameworks should govern the modification of nature, and what are the implications of accelerating these challenges through AI? At a day-to-day level, how can we make sure that sensitive genetic data is kept secure and not misused?  

Leadership role

I believe the UK should take the same pro-innovation and pro-safety approach it is taking to AI and apply it to engineering biology, especially in areas where the two connect. That means, as we have done with AI, drawing upon the knowledge of engineering biology experts to advise governments on its safe development. 

The government has already created a UK Biosecurity Leadership Council to work with businesses and organisations on the ground—a key commitment of our Biological Security Strategy.   

But we will go further. My department is committed to engaging with the public, with civil society, and with researchers from all disciplines to understand the social and cultural implications of this technology. 

By investing now, addressing risks proactively, and building an economic ecosystem to make the most of these revolutionary new technologies, we can pave the way for a future where we live longer, healthier, happier lives. Engineering biology stands at the forefront of this journey, and the time to seize its potential is now. 

Michelle Donelan is secretary of state for Science, Innovation and Technology.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight