"Laying the foundations for a bio-economy"

My new commentary, "Laying the foundations for a bio-economy", will be appearing in a upcoming issue of Systems and Synthetic Biology.  The piece is freely available online as both text and PDF.  Thanks to Springer for supporting the Open Access option.  Here are the abstract, the first two paragraphs, and the last two paragraphs:

Abstract  Biologicaltechnologies are becoming an important part of the economy. Biotechnology already contributes at least 1% of US GDP, with revenues growing as much as 20% annually. The introduction of composable biological parts will enable an engineering discipline similar to the ones that resulted in modern aviation and information technology. As the sophistication of biological engineering increases, it will provide new goods and services at lower costs and higher efficiencies. Broad access to foundational engineering technologies is seen by some as a threat to physical and economic security. However, regulation of access will serve to suppress the innovation required to produce new vaccines and other countermeasures as well as limiting general economic growth.          

Welcome to the Paleobiotic Age. Just as today we look back somewhat wistfully on our quaint Paleolithic--literally "old stone"--ancestors, so will our descendants see the present age as that of "old biology", inhabited by Paleobiotic Man. The technologies we use to manipulate biological systems are experiencing dramatic improvement, and as a result are driving change throughout human economies.       

In order to understand the impact of our growing economic dependence on biological technologies it is worth taking a moment to consider the meaning of economy. "Economy" is variously thought of as, "the management of the resources of a country, especially with a view to its productivity" and "the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole; an organized system or method"  Amid a constantly increasing demand for resources, we look to technology to improve the productivity of labor, to improve the efficiency of industrial process and energy production, and to improve the yield of agriculture. Very tritely, we look to technological innovation within our economy to provide more stuff at lower cost. Biological technologies are increasingly playing that role.


In this, the Paleobiotic Age, our society is only just beginning to struggle with all the social and technical questions that arise from a fundamental transformation of the economy. History holds many lessons for those of us involved in creating new tools and new organisms and in trying to safely integrate these new technologies into an already complex socio-economic system. Alas, history also fails to provide examples of any technological system as powerful as rational engineering of biology. We have precious little guidance concerning how our socio-economic system might be changed in the Neobiotic Age to come. We can only attempt to minimize our mistakes and rapidly correct those we and others do make.

The coming bio-economy will be based on fundamentally less expensive and more distributed technologies than those that shaped the course of the 20th Century. Our choices about how to structure the system around biological technologies will determine the pace and effectiveness of innovation. As with the rest of the natural and human built world, the development of this system is decidedly in human hands. To paraphrase Stewart Brand: We are as engineers, and we'd better get good at it in a hurry.