In the last 10 years, we saw discoveries scientists had only dreamed of—from the precise genetic engineering allowed by a little molecule called CRISPR to being able to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time.
So what could be next as the 2020s begin? Four eminent University of Chicago scientists consider the possibilities—and pitfalls—their own fields could see in the decade ahead.
Bryan Dickinson, synthetic biochemist
What do you think might be the most exciting result of scientific or technological advances in the next decade?
Drug discovery since the dawn of civilization has generally involved finding chemicals from our natural world or discovering molecules in the lab, and it’s mostly to treat the symptoms of disease. Now we are entering a new era, where one can go into a cell or organism and make permanent DNA changes. This precision will allow us to better treat disease, modify the natural world around us, and create more environmentally-friendly biotechnologies. I believe engineered biotechnologies are going to become a bigger part of our life—and key solutions to seemingly intractable problems dealing with food safety, human health, and pollution.
What’s a possible consequence of science or technology in the next decade that you worry about?
The public has a lot of misconceptions about engineered biological systems. The "GMO" fear is an especially worrying example of the backlash that can emerge if some bad commercial players drive a technology. So there are ethical questions to deal with—like when and how is appropriate to engineer humans?—as well as regulatory questions—like how can truly individualized genetic medicines be tested and approved?
Engaging the public in open dialogue—and ensuring that there is broad understanding and buy-in—is absolutely critical to fully capitalizing on the awesome potential of synthetic biology to address important problems in the next decade.