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Programmable Biology Puts Biotech on the Geopolitical Agenda

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In September, Jake Sullivan—President Biden’s national security adviser—announced that the U.S. government expects biotechnology to play an “outsized importance over the coming decade” in the context of geopolitical competition, because of the ability to “read, write, and edit genetic code, which has rendered biology programmable.”

Sullivan’s remarks came just days after senior security, economic, and science and technology officials gathered at the White House for a summit on biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The summit marked the release of an ambitious strategy that recognizes new abilities to “program biology” and featured commitments to grow the domestic bioeconomy and strengthen the biotech-related defense industrial base, including by using biology to manufacture products for the defense supply chain. 

Biotech was also featured in the recent CHIPS and Science Act—a law that aims to bolster U.S. manufacturing competitiveness—which includes a section on strengthening the bioeconomy. The Biden administration also signaled a focus on biotech more recently in October, when it added a leading Chinese genomics company to its periodically updated list of Chinese military-affiliated companies, which is used to indicate companies that appear private but are effectively state actors. And, in the near future, the new National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology will kick off, which is intended to help “advance and secure the development of biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and associated technologies by the United States to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs.”

Biotech is at the top of the United States’s agenda. Thus, it is important to understand the basics on programming microbes, geopolitical implications of programmable biology, and the several policy opportunities that arise from a U.S. biotech focus.

The Ability to Program Cells Changes Manufacturing 

Every living thing on Earth is made up of cells. Similarly to computers (which are driven by strings of binary code), these cells run on digital code, that is, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) code.

The DNA inside of every plant cell, animal cell, and microbe is made up of four components, represented by the letters A, T, C, and G. The arrangement of these four letters dictates the functionality of a cell in the same way 0s and 1s come together in binary code to program a computer. For example, depending on the sequence of its DNA, a microbe can make key inputs for food, agriculture, pharmaceutical, or chemical products, much in the same way that yeast makes beer. 

Accordingly, to program biology is to design the genetic code inside a cell to achieve a particular functionality, analogous to an app on a cell phone. Those apps are composed of code by computer programmers. Similarly, cell programmers—called synthetic biologists—write new programs into cells. 

However, while computer programs typically operate in the digital world and only indirectly shape the real world, programs based on biological, genetic code directly affect the physical world. This is because biology makes things. Really, biology makes almost everything. All driven by DNA code, living things make air and food, and they clean the Earth’s water. Biology is the original—and most powerful—manufacturing technology. Therefore, advancements in cell programming stand to impact all industries that produce physical goods. 

In fact, analysts at McKinsey Global Institute have estimated that programmed cells can be used to make up to 60 percent of the physical inputs to the global economy. In other words, the majority of things that are traditionally manufactured using industrial processes—such as plastics, fuels, materials, and medicines—can soon be made using biomanufacturing and synthetic biology. 

Biotech Is Not Just for Pharma Anymore 

Nearly all of the economy stands to be affected by this manufacturing revolution, with the most significant growth taking place in sectors far beyond the ones many observers might think biotech would impact first, such as health care and pharmaceuticals. 

In fact, experts expect that economic output from applications of biotechnology in domains such as agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials and energy production will soon overtake economic impacts resulting from applications for human health. Industries that never before used biotechnology are starting to use biotechnology now, including sectors ranging from cosmetics and personal care to industrial chemicals. After all, biotechnology is traditionally most associated with the pharmaceutical industry largely because the costs of using biotechnology have historically presented a barrier for other sectors with smaller research and development (R&D) budgets. This, notably, is not because medicines are any more well suited for biotechnology than other products that we use every day. 

Now, costs have been driven down. And the tools of synthetic biology—automation, miniaturization, and data science—are improving and opening up new possibilities for cell programming, across all sectors. 

Further, cell programming technology is becoming more accessible as it scales. Consider the case of cloud services. Companies used to have to own and operate their own servers. Today, platforms such as Amazon Web Services have made it easy for companies to use internet technology as a service, thus making it a variable cost that fluctuates with their needs while allowing them to tap into the latest, most powerful data technology. This is possible because computer applications—whether for social media, banking, or medical records—run on the same core principles and share common code. Similarly, DNA provides a common code, shared by all applications of biotechnology, thus enabling the emergence of shared platforms and services, and similar economies of scale. In the modern bioeconomy, companies can outsource advanced biotechnology R&D, freeing up resources to focus on their product and business in the same way advanced information technology services are largely outsourced.

In the same way that the digital revolution changed the way people communicate and use data—ushering in an information economy—synthetic biology is revolutionizing manufacturing and production across all sectors of the economy. In fact, synthetic biology could account for more than a third of global output of manufacturing industries before the end of the decade, representing almost $30 trillion in value. 

Synthetic Biology Plays an “Outsized Importance” on Global Agendas

In an illustration of the “outsized importance” that Sullivan anticipates, the list of areas where the White House sees synthetic biology unlocking innovations is comprehensive. It includes “health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.” 

On that list of geopolitical priorities, applications of synthetic biology for health are most well known, given the creation and dissemination of the remarkable messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA)-based coronavirus vaccines. Indeed, the response to the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that, combined with public-sector leadership and support, the bioeconomy offers a ready capacity for dramatically improved biosecurity, from biosurveillance, environmental monitoring, and continuous development and large-scale production of medical countermeasures. ​​

But, beyond the pandemic, programming biology stands to be similarly consequential to the other issues topping global agendas. Consider supply chains that have been disrupted by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or supply chains in countries bracing for future geopolitical turbulence. Biotech analysts believe that synthetic biology creates opportunities for local, sustainable supply of many important products and creates supply chains that are more sustainable and cost-effective, while also unlocking solutions to major global crises such as climate change. Further, they argue that synthetic biology makes possible supply chains no longer constrained by the availability of raw materials, or over-dependence on single suppliers, which further improves resilience. 

Synthetic biology also stands to transform how the world maintains reliable sources of nutritious food. Alternative proteins, such as those found in plant-based hamburgers, for example, have the capacity to feed more people while requiring less water and cropland than conventional meat, eggs, and dairy. These protein sources can also be manufactured in a wider variety of locations, allowing for a more distributed food supply chain and for food production to be less reliant on synthetic fertilizer, which not only poses a risk to climate and the environment but also has been less available following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

In general, when it comes to growing food, crop biotechnology has increased global food, feed, and fiber production by nearly 1 billion tons in the past 15 years, with an environmental footprint decrease of over 15 percent. Innovations in this area and decreasing a dependence on conventional food sources are essential—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that as much as 30 percent of agricultural land worldwide could become unsuitable for farming in the coming decade.

Synthetic biology is also a key technology for energy security. After all, fossil fuels, fundamentally, are simply plants and microbes that, over the course of millions of years, have decomposed into oil, natural gas, or coal. Today, using synthetic biology, microbes can be used to make fuels, plastics, and other industrial chemicals, thus reducing the reliance on fossil fuels. 

In fact, synthetic biology offers compelling alternatives to products traditionally derived from petrochemicals, such as next-generation biomaterials for producing apparel, cars, electronics, consumer goods, and packaging. Synthetic biology also continues to drive improvements in biofuels. For example, synthetic biology has produced aviation fuel that is not only more energy dense than petroleum but also may help airlines meet their sustainability goals

Because of its innovations, synthetic biology is increasingly being considered a climate technology. When President Obama addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021, he predicted that the world would rely on “breakthroughs in synthetic biology.” Today, adoption of synthetic biology is expected to be driven by businesses looking to meet emissions reduction targets

Leadership in Synthetic Biology Is Hugely Consequential 

Whichever country leads in synthetic biology advancements will have major advantages across the most important drivers of the global economy and global security. China has recognized the transformative potential of synthetic biology and in October announced a synthetic biology innovation center in Wuhan. Now, the United States is doubling down in the biotech arena. 

In this moment, there are several opportunities to secure U.S. leadership in biotech: 

  • Fully deliver on the president’s executive order on biotechnology and biomanufacturing. The executive order sets ambitious targets and aggressive timelines for departments and agencies across the government. Meeting these goals will provide a secure foundation for U.S. leadership and economic competitiveness. 
  • Implement elements of the CHIPS and Science Act that promote the U.S. bioeconomy. The landmark law promises a more focused and well-resourced federal approach to the U.S. bioeconomy. Specifically, delivering on the mandate that the U.S. develops a “national genomic sequencing strategy” for engineering biology would provide an important basis for both innovation and biosecurity. Understanding the DNA sequences of more and more organisms’ genomes helps researchers to design novel biotechnologies, as well as detect potential biological risks, such as novel pandemic viruses.
  • Capitalize on the upcoming National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology. If the Commission on Biotech can deliver on the same scale as the Cybersecurity Solarium Commission and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence before it, then “bio-literacy” in Washington, D.C., among policymakers will be vastly improved, which will be essential to meeting the opportunities and challenges of the bio-revolution. 
  • Build out biosecurity capabilities. The Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy recognizes the “narrow window of opportunity … to prepare for the next pandemic and to strengthen our biodefense.” Just as the advent of the information age underscored the need for cybersecurity, advancements in biotechnology and the increasing risk of epidemics should spur significant investments in biosecurity

To compete during the computer revolution, countries developed new national security and economic strategies to address the geopolitics of information—all indications are that the same will be true for the biotechnology revolution.

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