Thanks to a lot of defence spending synthetic biology is finally going mainstream

Once almost unheard of outside of sci-fi circles, the fast-developing field of synthetic biology is now swiftly leaving the dystopian fantasy landscapes of Blade Runner and Gattaca far behind and going mainstream in the real world – with a lot of defence spending paving the way.

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology represents the union of biotechnology and engineering - an interdisciplinary domain drawing on techniques and concepts from a range of individual fields including molecular biology, genetics, evolutionary biology, bio-physics, materials science and ICT. Its goal is to design and create new biological-based parts, devices and systems, and re-engineer existing biological systems for novel applications - hence the growing interest in the possibilities this could ultimately open up for defence purposes.

In the future, this field could see the military using engineered microbes to manufacture fuels, 'green' explosives or novel materials, or deploying super-sensitive biosensor bacteria able to detect threats such as IEDs or pathogens, to protect troops. For researchers in the field, the funding opportunities are getting better all the time.

In 2010, America's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had no investment in the sector; just four years later, two thirds of the US synthetic biology funding came from the Department of Defense, adding up to some $130m. It amounts to roughly one fifth of the entire national budget for bio-defence research in 2014, and that proportion will almost certainly be found to have grown further when the figures for subsequent years are finally released.

Dstl leads the way

While the Pentagon has a long history of funding the exploration of innovative technologies for their potential long-term military benefits, it seems the US is by no means the only party taking a keen interested in this burgeoning field. Having identified synthetic biology as one of the key emergent technologies of our time, the UK is also actively exploring the potential impact on British defence and security capabilities, via an ongoing initiative from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

"Dstl has been evaluating the power of synthetic biology to address some of the most intractable problems in defence, with a focus on novel materials," says Professor Petra Oyston, technical fellow for molecular microbiology and synthetic biology at Dstl. "This work has been undertaken by researchers throughout the UK, supported by Dstl, in both academia and industry."

"At the start of the project in 2012, no community existed anywhere in the world to apply synthetic biology to the area of armour materials or improved power batteries."

She explains that while on the international stage, the US invests the most in synthetic biology research, and has focussed mainly on biosensors and on engineering metabolic pathways, the UK is a world leader in applying biological systems to the manufacture of novel materials.

"At the start of the project in 2012, no community existed anywhere in the world to apply synthetic biology to the area of armour materials or improved power batteries," Oyston says. "Therefore we needed to stimulate the formation of a new, multidisciplinary research community."

Inviting new ideas

Oyston explains that to achieve this, Dstl has held a series of linked competitions to attract academia and industry into the sector and address defence-relevant issues, using a range of funding models, including joint calls with the Research Councils (RCUK), calls issued through Dstl's Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), and studentships placed under the national PhD scheme. It has already led to some notable successes, particularly with improved boron carbide armour and catalysts for fuel cells, which were recently showcased ahead of the latest call for proposals.

It is a themed competition, looking for short-term, proof-of-concept research into highly innovative approaches to produce novel materials to address three specific defence challenges: adhesives, corrosion resistance and applications in protection.

Of particular interest are technologies which are significantly different from existing ones, or which bring greater affordability or operational superiority. While all proposals have to contain an element of synthetic biology, this alone does not have to achieve all of the project goals. With up to £750,000 available for phase one of the competition, the Dstl expect to fund a number of projects with £50,000 to £100,000, with a duration of about nine months.

For those successfully making it to phase two, there will be up to £3m available, with funding being considered on a per-project basis.

Continued investment

As Oyston explains, ongoing investment in the area is essential to coalesce the research community, which is why there have been the sequential funding competitions, and why the Dstl, RCUK and Innovate UK have taken a co-ordinated approach to developing synthetic biology.

"Harnessing biological systems for manufacturing and processing is one of the most exciting developments of the 21st century," says Oyston. "It has been estimated by Innovate UK that synthetic biology will contribute £10bn to the UK economy by 2030."

"Harnessing biological systems for manufacturing and processing is one of the most exciting developments of the 21st century."

She adds that realising this will require the UK to commercialise cutting-edge science and technology through a healthy innovation pipeline, a highly skilled workforce and an environment in which business can thrive.

"The UK government has invested approximately £300m in the last eight years to achieve this vision. Six new multidisciplinary centres have been established by the RCUK in addition to smaller research groups in over 30 universities, all of which mean we have a UK-wide synthetic biology foundation of international significance," she says.

Ethical questions

There are always going to be ethical questions asked about anything which essentially involves tinkering with biology - be that as fundamentally low-key as producing GM foods or as profound as editing the human genome. Add to that the prospect of a military use for the science, and for some, the nightmare vision of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World suddenly seems an all-too-real possibility.

After all, genome editing - one of the core tools of synthetic biology - was recently named a potential 'weapon of mass destruction' in US National Intelligence Director James Clapper's 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment. "Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications," he wrote.

Oyston makes it clear that these kinds of issues have been addressed from the outset and it is a requirement of their funding that the final products do not contain any living material, such as genetically modified organisms. "All the centres are committed in ethical, legal and social aspects of their work, with embedded 'Responsible Research and Innovation' goals," she says. "It is within this infrastructure that Dstl is stimulating a research field applying synthetic biology to defensive applications, such as novel armour."

Potential benefits

Although the Dstl's interests obviously lie firmly in defence, researchers are also encouraged to identify civil applications for their work. "For example, a lightweight but strong material may also be of interest to car manufacturers," Oyston says.

Facing the final moments of his own synthetically created life, Roy Batty - the principal antagonist in the 1982 film, Blade Runner - laments the fact that his ideas, thoughts and memories will be lost after his in-built and genetically pre-programmed death "like tears in rain." Given the growing levels of interest and funding currently being invested in synthetic biology by the defence community on both sides of the Atlantic, however, there seems little likelihood that the field itself will suffer the same fate any time soon.

The potential benefits are simply too great to ignore.