Biological Engineering, or Bioengineering, is a multidisciplinary field that combines biology and engineering to model, design and engineer biological systems. This is enabled by the ability of scientists to engineer the DNA of living cells (whether they belong, to plants, animals or microbes) into standardised and characterised ‘parts’ that can be used swiftly and interchangeably to produce different DNA ‘circuits’ in a similar fashion to circuit design in electronics. This has for the first-time enabled bottom-up design and fabrication of genetic circuits that render functions that were not out there in nature before, i.e. biology can now be engineered using the design, build, test cycle just like software and hardware. And the cycle is getting shorter and cheaper with time as the technology to read and write DNA gets better and cheaper.
Bioengineering is an emerging field that is set to revolutionise the global economy. Building on recent developments in different techniques and methodologies in biosciences and by applying key principles from engineering disciplines, the nascent industry aims to reboot what has traditionally been known as genetic engineering and biotechnology. Key developments that have led to the emergence of bioengineering include:
- Increasing power and exponentially decreasing cost of DNA sequencing technologies, or the ‘reading’ of DNA molecules, to understand the ‘code of life’. The first draft of the human genome, for example, took around 15 years and over three billion US dollars to be sequenced. In 2014, the cost of sequencing the same genome was announced to have touched the $1000 mark. In January 2021, Illumina one of the leading companies of DNA sequencing technology reassured that sequencing the human genome will soon be doable for a mere $100. It is widely acknowledged now in the scientific community that this rate of development surpasses the progress we have seen in the IT industry brought about by computers (as predicted by Moore’s Law).
- Substantially decreasing costs of DNA synthesis, or the ‘writing’ or ‘printing’ of DNA molecules, which allows for the chemical synthesis of any DNA sequence of choice at in a matter of hours.
- The cross-pollination of ideas, concepts and principles of seemingly disparate fields, like biology and electrical engineering. Synthetic Biology aims for the abstraction, characterisation and standardisation of DNA parts and their design and assembly into ‘genetic’ circuitry in automated ways. This process is reminiscent of the design and fabrication of electronic circuits and computer chips.
Several developing countries and major Fortune 500 corporations including technology giants are diversifying into the field and refocusing their investment strategies accordingly.