Reshaping our world through the responsible advancement of synthetic biology

04 September 2018
The report analyses the opportunities for synthetic biology in the areas of health and medicine.
Synthetic biology could reshape the global industrial landscape, creating opportunities and challenges for Australian firms, according to a new report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA).

Synthetic biology in Australia: an outlook to 2030 examines the prospects for a fast-evolving field characterised by bold thinking and interdisciplinary research. 

Broadly defined, synthetic biology involves the application of engineering principles to biology to produce new and improved products and services, to manufacture substances that are difficult to synthesise by traditional techniques, and to harvest sustainably from nature. Examples include a low-emissions method of making jet fuel or the anti-malarial compound artemisinin.

The report analyses the opportunities across areas critical to Australia, including: health and medicine; industry and energy; agriculture and food, and; environment and biocontrol. 

“Synthetic biology offers immense potential to transform industry and deliver significant benefits for Australia. Its development will require strategic investment and a skilled workforce which can integrate the essential ethical, legal and social aspects of synthetic biology into the research and innovation process from its earliest stages,” said the chair of the ACOLA expert working group, Professor Peter Gray.

Indeed, applications of synthetic biology in mammalian cells is one of the three pillars of research and translation at Stem Cells Australia. A national network of researchers in the Designers Cells program are using a combination of molecular tools to design and construct completely novel types of cells, built to deliver a specific function. Possible functions of these cells could be a universal donor cell or one that produces therapeutic compounds on command. Another example function could be a cell that monitors a certain chemical or hormone in patient’s blood stream. 

The report also explores the human concerns raised by the technology, highlighting the importance of an adaptable and responsive regulatory system to guide responsible advancement. In response to the report, A/ Professor Megan Munsie from Stem Cells Australia and colleagues discussed the importance of not only building a strong policy and regulatory framework around synthetic biology, but also ensuring that there is strong public awareness, engagement and value in this emerging field.

The report makes six findings that highlight the opportunities presented by synthetic biology and the steps needed to maximise the economic and societal benefits. These include building on areas of existing capability, improved research translation, proactive public communication, a workforce skilled in both Humanities and Social Science and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines, and an integrated national infrastructure platform. 

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who commissioned the report on behalf of the Commonwealth Science Council, urged policymakers to reflect on the questions it raises.

“The possibilities of synthetic biology are limitless,” Dr Finkel said. “The question for Australians is which avenues to pursue, and how to do so in a manner that earns consumers’ trust.”

This is the third in ACOLA’s Horizon Scanning series. ‘These interdisciplinary reports provide credible and well-considered evidence to guide opportunities and inform policy on issues ranging from the technological change and sustainability to international competitiveness and the economy’ Professor Glenn Withers, ACOLA President, said.

The report, funded by the CSIRO and the Federal Department of Health, is available at