Engineering biology’s reach across sectors challenges conventional approaches to policymaking and regulation, says Linda Bedenik
This is an age of truly disruptive biological innovation. It is driven by the rise of industrial biotechnologies for engineering biology such as Crispr gene editing, insights from big data and artificial intelligence, breakthroughs in genomics and the industrialisation of DNA sequencing. Deployed at scale, its products have the potential to mitigate and counteract many of the threats to sustainability in the UK and worldwide.
The BioIndustry Association calls this frontier deep biotech. It comprises innovative companies using biotechnologies to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from the climate crisis to environmental degradation, to food security.
UK startups are working to engineer proteins to eat plastic, increase algae’s capacity to produce biofuel, make clothing from enzymes instead of petrochemicals, and produce real meat in fermentors. A BIA report published today highlights some of these companies and discusses what the sector needs to deliver on its promise.
The rise of deep biotech startups and scale-ups is built on R&D excellence, such as the pivotal role played by UK-based researchers in the 15-year Synthetic Yeast Genome Project. Last November, the project announced it had created synthetic versions of all the organism’s chromosomes. The breakthrough paves the way for designer yeasts with metabolic pathways tailored to, for example, make biofuels from diverse materials.
Sustained public investment has also been vital. In 2012, for example, the government committed £70 million to six Synthetic Biology Research Centres across the UK to foster a growing network of expertise.
The National Vision for Engineering Biology, published in December, cements UK leadership in deep biotech. The government has committed to invest £2 billion over the next 10 years, paving the way to translate engineering biology’s potential into real-world applications. The vision is a step change in the government’s commitment to commercialising engineering biology and fostering an environment for deep biotech startups to scale up and flourish.
The 9 February announcements of £100m in public funding for six new Engineering Biology Mission Hubs, and the re-commitment to engineering biology as a strategic priority under the UK’s Science and Technology Framework are an important vehicle to help deep biotech companies reach their potential.
Clear the path
With a general election looming, it is for the next government to uphold the commitment to the vision and to engineering biology as a strategic priority, address challenges for deep biotech companies, and help them contribute to a sustainable UK bioeconomy.
Several government departments are already working to this end. Their efforts include the ongoing pro-innovation regulatory review, November’s independent review of university spinouts and the advances made in developing global standards in engineering biology. These need to be continued and built upon.
The applications of engineering biology challenge the sector boundaries that characterise much of UK policymaking and regulation. A raft of different regulators need to acquire the knowledge to create safe regulatory pathways to bring deep biotech products to market.
Deep biotech companies have to compete with existing products such as single-use plastics and conventional meat, produced by huge industries with the attendant economies of scale. Building up infrastructure and facilities to scale new products is costly and takes time.
In 2013, it cost $330,000 to produce a burger of cultivated meat. In 2019, it cost $9.80. To genuinely compete with farmed meat, it needs to cost less than $1.
Consumer confidence also shapes the uptake of novel products, as exemplified by the long road to allowing gene-edited crops into UK markets.
And yet the benefits of deep biotech to society, environment and economy are enormous. The consultancy McKinsey estimates that in the next decade, the direct annual global impact of the biorevolution will be worth $2 trillion to $4 trillion.
The next government’s challenge will be to realise biotech’s potential across the entire economy and society, from medicines to food, to clothes.
Both the Conservatives and Labour have given life sciences and biotech strong support, not least at last year’s party conferences. Former science minister George Freeman has championed UK engineering biology for many years. Shadow science minister Chi Onwurah attended the world’s largest synthetic biology conference in California last year, where she expressed Labour’s support for engineering biology, and spoke to innovators from the UK and elsewhere.
Policymakers hoping to boost biotech may listen to and learn from the sector’s wishes and concerns on issues such as the importance of R&D tax credits for innovative and research-intensive startups, the availability of patient capital, and the need for scale-up capital and facilities.
While the impact of deep biotech is easy to grasp, its interdisciplinarity will require understanding and support across government. By seizing this opportunity, the next government could cement the UK’s status as a world leader in the bioeconomy.
Linda Bedenik is the senior policy and public affairs manager at the BioIndustry Association
Update 13/2 This article was first published on 7 February and updated on 9 February to reflect the recent funding announcements.
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight