This EBRC technical roadmap, Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability: A Research Roadmap for a Cleaner Future, is a critical assessment of opportunities for engineering biology to contribute to tackling the climate crisis and long-term sustainability of products and solutions for health and well-being of Earth and its inhabitants. More extreme, frequent, and interconnected climate events are causing widespread vulnerabilities, damage, and loss to humans and nature, and these adverse impacts are compounding and more and more often becoming irreversible. As noted by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the “magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming”.1IPCC. (2022). Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3–33. View publication This roadmap identifies novel approaches, objectives, and aims for engineering biology research in climate change mitigation and adaptation that can help to lower greenhouse gases, reduce and remove pollution, and promote biodiversity and ecosystem conservation. This roadmap also identifies opportunities for engineering biology-enabled, sustainable replacements and alternatives in the food and agriculture sector, transportation and energy sectors, and for materials and industrial processes. These potential solutions include biobased alternatives to synthetic fertilizers, better energy storage with biobased batteries, and sustainable, climate-friendly biomaterials to replace non-degradable plastics and toxic textile dyes, among many others. The roadmap’s opportunities and objectives are laid out as short-, medium-, and long-term milestones, to address the challenges of climate change and sustainability with both urgency and persistent ambition and vision for the development and translation of engineering biology tools to technologies and products for the current and next-generation bioeconomy. In addition to the roadmap, social and nontechnical dimensions case studies provide context and framing for the questions and considerations that can be asked and addressed during research and development, and are intended to be used as a discussion and learning tool by engineering biology researchers and their collaborators. Finally, a glossary provides a quick reference for the terms and concepts included in the technical roadmap.
EBRC recommends the following citation when referencing the Roadmap:
Engineering Biology Research Consortium (2022). Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability: A Research Roadmap for a Cleaner Future. Retrieved from http://roadmap.ebrc.org. doi:10.25498/E4SG64.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Nos. 1818248 and 2116166.
The Roadmap in Context
The engineering biology tools and technologies described in this roadmap can only be a small part of the myriad solutions urgently and collectively needed to tackle climate change and challenges for sustainability. Like the global nature of the crisis, the solutions too must be global. We must support, leverage, and work in concert with advances in many other disciplines of science and technology – from ecology to climate science, environmental sciences to the renewable energy sector, geosciences, physics, chemistry, and materials science, and the social sciences, among many, many others. Each field will have their own answers and approaches, all of which are interconnected and must be combined with inclusive local engagement, informed regulations and policy, equitable education, and global connection and collaboration. Similarly, the engineering biology approaches herein are only a subset of opportunities, and should be considered for their ethical and economical risks and benefits, in addition to technical feasibility. Engineering biology has truly transformative potential and the biotechnologies envisioned by this roadmap, if established with longevity in mind and thoughtfully incorporated into existing and novel technologies, products, and processes, will greatly contribute to a robust global bioeconomy. This roadmap should serve as inspiration, driving passion and imagination towards solving the grand challenge of climate change and enabling a sustainable future for all.
While we will not solve all of the threats from climate change and challenges to sustainability with engineering biology, the capabilities and technologies envisioned by this roadmap could make significant contributions and advancements towards those goals. Sustainable solutions will require commercial and industrial sectors to partner with biology and transition to a biology-driven, circular economy that is respectful and inclusive of the diversity of ecosystems, environments, and all of their inhabitants. Moreover, while engineering biology can contribute to overcoming world-wide challenges, it can also be implemented at local, community-level scales, designed and tailored to fit regional ecosystems and economies, distributed to utilize local resources and solve smaller-scale problems, and provide materials, products, and solutions that fit the needs of diverse individuals. Biotechnologies imagined by this roadmap will help to capture, eliminate, store and sequester carbon, greenhouse gases and contaminants from the atmosphere, land, and water, and directly at point emission sources, to reduce global warming and the effects of climate change, and promote and ensure a cleaner Earth. Engineering biology can contribute to alternatives and modifications to those pollution and hazard sources, preventing harm in the first place. With engineering biology we can enable alternatives to carbon-intensive concrete and non-degradable plastics, reduce methane from agriculture and food production and processing, and find ways to create, store, and more efficiently use renewable energy. In concert with other solutions, targeted and creative investment, infrastructure, education, and engagement in engineering biology can ensure that we have a healthy, greener future.
Process and Project Development
This work represents the fifth of EBRC’s technical roadmaps and the first dedicated to a specific application and global challenge. The topic of climate change and sustainability was identified by the EBRC membership and stakeholders as especially urgent and important and an area in which engineering biology is poised to significantly contribute. Other EBRC roadmaps have included objectives and opportunities related to environmental biotechnology, including climate change and sustainability, but never dedicated to the topic in such a way.
Addressing climate change and sustainability with engineering biology posed particular challenges as to the scope and framing of this roadmap. A roadmap for climate change must address a myriad of impacts on humans, animals, plants, infrastructure, and the physics and chemistry of the Earth’s air, water, and land. Those impacts are felt immediately and at a distance, and some, if not many, are yet unknown and ever-changing. Climate change is a global challenge, meaning that biotechnologies must address local and regional challenges that impact everyday lives and impacts that span nations, oceans, and cross borders. Biotechnologies inspired by the roadmap must be accessible in a variety of resource settings, be contained to prevent adverse effects, be feasible (technically, economically, ethically, and politically), and be impactful on the necessary timescales. And the roadmap must speak to our expertise as the engineering biology community, with full acknowledgement of the research and understanding, technology and developments needed for systems-level solutions to the complex and interconnected challenges in climate and sustainability.
In the end, this roadmap only skims the surface of the potential for engineering biology to address climate change and sustainability. We chose to focus this roadmap on common themes found in other climate change-related publications, foremost being the work by the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (https://www.ipcc.ch/), and informed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (https://sdgs.un.org/), and global climate change policy, particularly that of the United States. (EBRC roadmapping receives funding support from U.S. federal agencies and therefore typically focuses our efforts on U.S.-based opportunities and strategies; however, we hope that the engineering biology solutions envisioned by this roadmap are globally applicable and actionable.) One area not specifically called out in this roadmap is direct effects on human health; rather, opportunities to protect and improve human health are implicit in addressing other challenges. This roadmap also represents only a snapshot in time, with new challenges arising, and with new technologies and advancements continuing to be made daily. Thus, the milestones in this roadmap will be influenced by many factors affecting their attainment and should be taken as a point of reference for what the future can hold.
Roadmap stakeholders include the research community within and beyond engineering biology, in academia, industry, and government. Stakeholders also include policy- and decision-makers in government, industry, and nonprofit/non-governmental organizations and institutions. Educators, instructors, and the next generation of thought leaders are an important and integral part of the roadmap audience, necessary to realizing the advancements of engineering biology for climate and sustainability.
EBRC’s roadmapping is an iterative process of brainstorming, discussion, drafting, review, and revision. Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability was created by over 90 individuals with expertise across engineering biology and other science and engineering disciplines (see Contributors). Scoping for this roadmap took place starting in early 2021, with adaptations made throughout the drafting process to account for new areas of interest and to ensure clear and concise communication of the challenges and opportunities. Roadmap contributors participated in a number of virtual workshops and collaborative writing sessions between July 2021 and April 2022, building on the work of their colleagues and bringing new ideas and approaches to each strategy laid out in the roadmap’s milestones and technical achievements. An Interim Report describing the anticipated scope and content of the roadmap was released in November 2021. The roadmap was reviewed by stakeholders and revised April through August 2022, edited for clarity and consistency, and prepared for publication in September 2022. EBRC roadmapping efforts are led by our Roadmapping Working Group, chaired by Dr. Michael Köpke (VP Synthetic Biology, LanzaTech), with staff direction from Dr. Emily Aurand.
About the Roadmap
The Technical Roadmap is comprised of six themes that detail breakthroughs and milestones for engineering biology for climate and sustainability. Part 1 includes three Technical Themes which focus on novel capabilities to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change and build and ensure resilient ecosystems. The Biosequestration of Greenhouse Gases theme addresses opportunities to capture and remove carbon dioxide, methane, and other harmful gases from the atmosphere and enable and strengthen carbon storage and conversion. The Mitigation of Environmental Pollution theme highlights opportunities to prevent and tackle pollution through bioremediation, biosequestration, and biodegradation of contaminants in the environment and from point-sources. And the Conservation of Ecosystems and Biodiversity theme addresses opportunities for engineering biology to contribute to the monitoring of ecosystem members and their health, distribution, and diversity, and pinpoints the need for strong biocontainment strategies that are necessary for all engineering biology applications. Part 2 includes three Application and Impact Sector themes and focuses on climate-friendly, sustainable products and solutions for chief engineering biology application sectors. The Food & Agriculture theme addresses specific opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production and waste and towards making agriculture and food systems more robust to climate change. The Transportation & Energy theme addresses opportunities in biofuels, electricity production and storage, and reducing emissions from transportation, shipping, and aviation. Finally, the Materials Production & Industrial Processes theme identifies opportunities in the built environment, textiles, and other consumer products for reducing the anthropogenic carbon footprint, reducing toxins and wastes, and recovering economically-valuable resources sustainably.
Each theme is broken down into a series of roadmap elements (further described individually below). Considered from the top-down, the roadmap elements become progressively more technical. The higher-level elements, the Goals and Breakthrough Capabilities, are societal-level concerns and are written to be more approachable for non-technical audiences and those with expertise outside of engineering biology and related fields, identifying challenges they are likely to be familiar with regardless of their background or current role in addressing the climate crisis and sustainability challenges. The Milestones speak directly to the engineering biology tools and technologies that will need to be developed or enabled to achieve the Goals and Breakthrough Capabilities and are laid out over short-, medium-, and long-term timeframes, indicative of the resources, infrastructure, and other advancements necessary to their achievement. Finally, the Bottlenecks and Potential Solutions illustrate specific technical challenges that the engineering biology research community can attend to towards realizing each milestone. From the bottom-up, the roadmap elements provide a pathway for engineering biology questions and research topics to be applied towards mitigation, adaptation, and sustainability for the climate and global ecosystems. The roadmap elements build collectively, with the Milestones representing some of the engineering biology achievements necessary towards accomplishing the Breakthrough Capability, and the collection of Breakthroughs necessary, in part, towards achieving the overarching Goal.
Goals – The roadmap Goals are the “big-picture” objectives, what we hope to accomplish through science and technology to mitigate climate change and enable sustainability. Written in a way that is accessible to non-technical audiences, the Goals are intended to convey some of the biggest issues and opportunity areas in tackling the climate crisis and enabling long-term sustainability solutions.
Current State-of-the-Art – Each Goal is followed by a short summary of recent advances, what we can accomplish with engineering biology today, and where the biggest challenges are. The Current State-of-the-Art is intended to set the stage for further advancements in engineering biology and what opportunities are addressed in the roadmap.
Breakthrough Capabilities – The Breakthrough Capabilities identify how we can contribute to the Goal with engineering biology and are representative of major aims across the field. Typically written as what you might see in a Science or Nature publication headline, the Breakthrough Capabilities are the engineering biology achievements towards their higher Goal.
Milestones (Short-, Medium-, and Long-term) – The Milestones are the engineering biology tools and technologies that make a stepwise advancement towards achieving the Breakthrough Capability. Short-term Milestones are expected to be about 2-5 years away from achievement, representing research that is currently funded (or where funding opportunities exist) or could be accomplished with existing resources. Medium-term Milestones are tools and technologies anticipated to be achieved in approximately 5-10 years; these research areas likely need funding (including new grant/award programs) or infrastructure development, and other support at the institutional or federal level. Long-term Milestones are anticipated to be 10-20+ years from realization and, in most if not all cases, would require new funding, infrastructure, or other resources (including significant tool and technology development). All of the milestones are intended to be ambitious and visionary, representative of what engineering biology could accomplish with unconstrained resources and congruent advancements in other fields, so as to spur investment and action across the science, engineering, social, and political enterprise.
Bottlenecks and Potential Solutions – The Bottlenecks represent a specific technical challenge to achieving the milestone. Likewise, the Potential Solutions represent one or more ways in which we might overcome the bottleneck. These elements are not comprehensive, capturing only a few of the issues and approaches researchers may encounter and undertake.
In addition to the technical roadmap, this work also includes Social and Nontechnical Dimensions Case Studies. These case studies are intended to serve as a resource for technical researchers to encourage and guide these scientists and engineers in consideration of nontechnical issues, challenges, and approaches that should inform research and technology development. The case studies highlight a range of nontechnical dimensions through the lens of hypothetical engineering biology advancements drawn from the roadmap. Each case study presents questions of ethical, political, economic, and security dimensions that could impact technical design choices and approaches as researchers consider impact and feasibility of future tools and technology. Also included is a Glossary of important terms and concepts included, and in the context of, the technical roadmap. We hope the glossary enables greater understanding and a more common language among roadmap stakeholders and users.
Like all EBRC roadmaps, Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability is intended and anticipated to be a resource for scientists, engineers, educators, and policymakers considering how and where engineering biology and biotechnology can play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and enabling sustainable solutions, building a robust, global bioeconomy. The opportunities identified in the roadmap should be considered along with other solutions and developed in coordination and collaboration with other research fields, appropriate policy and regulation, and with input from local, national, and international communities.
- IPCC. (2022). Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3–33, Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGII_SummaryForPolicymakers.pdf