Bio-Engineering in the 21st Century

Lately, a new series of bioengineering sciences have developed. They raise the hope of being able to control, create and produce the organic world. Technology becomes Biology, and Biology Technology.

Making Perfect Life? analyses for crucial fields of 21st century Biotechnology: the engineering of artificial life, technical interventions in the human body, technical interventions in the human brain, and the creation of intelligent machines It illustrates the two emerging mega-trends: The technology becoming biology trend appears in the aim of producing artificial life from scratch. Emulating biology becoming technology, synthetic biology aims to construct living organisms for useful purposes, applying engineering principles more thoroughly than in biotechnology. Predictably, the pertaining debate in society is going to be much broader than today.

Supported by the findings of past projects, ITA contributed a study on the pursuit of standardisation in synthetic biology. As an engineering field, synthetic biology bridges the gap between research and development. However, the long-term goals are practical applications contributing to a future bio-economy. Practicability is greatly enhanced by standardization, making it possible to use ready-made genetic building blocks with known functions that are universally applicable. This aim is based on the reductionist premises that reproducible elements can be designed to be efficient and that organisms are defined by their genome. So far though, few elements have been constructed and proved to function.

Genetic elements can be compared to “electronic” Lego bricks which are integrated into circuits. Practices like separating design, construction and assembly can also be adopted from this analogy. In addition, synthetic biology is expected to become powerful and economically important like Information Technology was, and still is. The anticipation of importance nevertheless feeds a controversy over three issues: firstly, how to handle intellectual property, through open source or patents. Secondly, some think that the potential for misuse and accidents calls for new safety standards. Thirdly, the boundaries between life and inanimate matter may blur, raising ethical questions and possibly eliciting public unease like with ‘green’ biotechnology. New standards must provide answers to all these questions.

We have identified four challenges for policy makers:

  • establishing technical engineering standards, something new to biology
  • setting safety standards that reliably prevent unwanted effects, ensuring development
  • finding ways between open source and patenting in intellectual property management
  • fostering a public debate that could develop societal standards without risking negative opinion formation


01/2010 - 12/2011


  • Helge Torgersen