Bioengineering refers to the application of engineering principles and design principles to biological systems. This fusion includes artificial organs and limbs, genetic synthesis of new organisms (gene editing), gene editing, computerized simulations of surgery, medical imaging technology, tissue/organ regeneration, and gene editing.
Bioengineering, like any other technology, has the potential to cause harm, be it through misuse, weaponization, or accidents. This risk could pose significant risks to the public’s health, privacy, and environmental safety.
In recent years, the price of approaches such as genomic synthesis has dropped dramatically. This has led to a surge in bioengineering research, which has expanded its applications. It is crucial to anticipate the impact of bioengineering technology. This is the motivation behind the recent study by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (University of Cambridge), which aimed to assess emerging risks in the field.
How do we predict the future?
The ‘Delphi method’, which brings together 38 experts from 13 countries and six continents to discuss, vote and suggest the most important emerging issues in bioengineering, was used. These exercises are crucial in ensuring society awareness and readiness for future threats or opportunities.
This study produced a list of 20 priority issues that will influence the future of bioengineering. These issues are important for policymakers, academics and the general public. They cover everything from neuronal probes to enhance human performance to carbon sequestration.
These issues won’t be solved in isolation; they will likely coalesce. We outlined possible future scenarios based on the identified issues for readers to familiarize themselves with the various bioengineering technologies.
Future scenario #1: Within 5 Years
Automated and robotically controlled private “cloud labs” are helping to facilitate biotechnological discoveries. These labs can create drought-tolerant, genetically modified plants which are bred to thrive in a warmer environment. The effects of these plants on biodiversity and ecosystems are not fully understood, so there is uncertainty as to how they should be deployed.
These concerns are a magnet for billionaires, who donate to science. This results in a surge of funding for scientific projects such as protein engineering and machine-learning, which leads to the creation new compounds within the industry (e.g. New catalysts for natural reactions and medical applications (e.g. Some diseases require selective destruction of damaged tissue. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also begins adding new substances to its list. This is after they have identified that some of the newly created proteins could be used as weapons because of their high lethality.
Future scenario #2: Within 10 years
Biomedical research has improved and cell therapies now help patients with rare diseases. Citizens are vaccinated using edible vaccines in plants. Phage therapy is an alternative to antibiotic treatment. This combats antimicrobial resistance, which has been identified as a global catastrophe risk.
Healthcare is in a tug-of-war between elite therapies and democracy. Open-Pharma has grown and Big Pharma’s monopoly on insulin is being challenged by small drug producers.
While other advances look promising, they raise ethical questions in terms of human enhancement and the exacerbation of health inequalities. The question of who gets to benefit from bioengineering advancements is a big one in a world with increasing inequalities. Some governments also collected the genomic data of all citizens through compulsory programs. Some of these genome databases were compromised and the genomic data from millions of citizens sold via “black markets” or blockchain. This data is used by some companies to aid in hiring decisions.
Future potential scenario #3: beyond 10 years
Bioengineering has been focusing on sustainability because of the increasing impact of climate change. Many plastic and other energy- or material-intensive products are being phased out to make way for bio-based materials made of renewable plant feedstock.
This trend is due to a change in fashion for bio-clothing and higher carbon prices. Also, there has been an increase in nitrogen pricing in 34 countries.
The IPCC is currently preparing a special report about the benefits and risks of plant strains that sequester carbon faster and more effectively. It can also aid in solar photovoltaics (the generation of electricity from sunlight) and light-sustained Biomanufacturing. This approach is being protested against by citizens who are concerned about political unrest and spreading fake news. Approval is not granted.
The role and responsibilities of government, society, and academics
These issues will determine the future of bioengineering. They also need to be part of modern discussions about its economic, political, and societal impact. To make informed policy decisions, we need to think critically about what these issues are and their implications.
We feel that science should be closer to society as academics. Therefore, we created this comic to share our scientific findings with all stakeholders. Now it is your turn to assess the future potential of bioengineering, and to decide what actions we should take.