The big trends in synthetic biology you need to know

The big trends in synthetic biology you need to know

Both public sector agencies and private sector investors are pouring new money into the synthetic biology space, and that’s leading to a situation where we can expect a burst of new innovations impacting fields as diverse as agriculture, energy and health. According to the latest “U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding” report from the Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project in Washington, D.C., the U.S. government funded more than $820 million in synthetic biology research programs in the period from 2008-2014.

In the public sector, the role of innovation giant DARPA in funding synthetic biology projects has exploded, eclipsing the role of other prominent U.S. government agencies that fund synthetic biology programs, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the USDA. In 2014 alone, DARPA funded $100 million in programs, more than three times the amount funded by the NSF, marking a fast ramp-up from a level of zero in 2010.

Given the innovation leadership role that DARPA has played in everything from self-driving cars and robots to the development of the Internet, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on what DARPA is doing in the field of synthetic biology. Through initiatives such as its Living Foundries program, DARPA seeks to facilitate the creation of a manufacturing platform for living organisms. At the end of September, DARPA awarded an MIT synthetic biology lab, the Broad Institute Foundry, a $32 million contract for designing and manufacturing DNA.

As Todd Kuiken, the senior program associate at the Wilson Center Synthetic Biology Project who authored the report, told me in a conversation, DARPA now represents close to 60 percent of all public funding in the synthetic biology field. If you add in all Department of Defense spending, he says, then nearly two-thirds of all synthetic biology funding from the federal government has a defense industry tilt to it.

That could be worrisome if you consider the prospects for the weaponization of synthetic organisms and the potential to create biological mayhem in countries that are not friendly to the United States. Many of the Department of Defense programs are classified and exact numbers are difficult to come by, so there’s no real way to know what the U.S. Army or Navy might be working on.

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