Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability

Social and Nontechnical Dimensions Case Studies


Climate change presents multifaceted challenges that require humanity’s collective attention and commitment. Mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change will affect how individuals live their lives and interact with their planet. To have their desired impact, the technical solutions, approaches, and strategies presented in this roadmap must be considered with respect to the societal values and contexts in which they might someday be deployed. Across complex local, national, and international landscapes, personal and societal values and experiences can lead to disparate ideas about which challenges are most urgent to address and the appropriateness of any given approach. Uncertainty about outcomes and different tolerance for risk will lead individuals with the same factual information to come to different conclusions about appropriate uses of technology. Recognizing the complexity of this societal context and engaging with ethical, social, economic, political, and legal ideas and frameworks is necessary for the development of biotechnologies that can ultimately be accepted, implemented, and achieve their goals.

The following questions and case studies were developed for technical researchers who may be less- or unaccustomed to considering such nontechnical elements of their research. The case studies are intended to be used by such researchers as they consider how nontechnical dimensions can inform technical approaches to climate and sustainability challenges. Some nontechnical concerns can be alleviated with technical design choices or can help researchers identify target technical efficiencies/parameters needed to make an approach feasible. Case studies were selected to highlight a range of nontechnical issues, challenges, and considerations that permeate this Engineering Biology for Climate & Sustainability roadmap. Each case study consists of a hypothetical engineering biology-based technology drawn from this roadmap, an application area related to climate change and sustainability, and a geographical location where the technology could be deployed for context. Overarching nontechnical considerations are explored below, then applied to each case study. Within the case studies, questions are raised that highlight ethical, political, economic, and security dimensions of those considerations. We do not seek to answer these questions within the case studies—or even to identify all the necessary questions that should be considered—but rather use the case studies and associated questions as examples of how and why the consideration of social dimensions is important.

Addressing and adequately contending with these nontechnical considerations will, in many instances, necessitate consultation and collaboration with colleagues in the social sciences. Such partners have specialized knowledge, social research expertise, understanding, and context that can inform technical research approaches, techniques, and strategies. In partnership, technical and nontechnical researchers may successfully identify and engage appropriate stakeholders, such as local community members, understand and communicate regulatory needs and uncertainties, and seize opportunities to refine research approaches such that they are able to maximize positive impacts.

Unfortunately, well-trod pathways and funding are lacking for the development of partnerships, collaborations, and strengthening of professional networks between technical and social science researchers (see Viseu, 20151Viseu, A. (2015). Integration of social science into research is crucial. Nature, 525(7569), 291–291. View Publication. and Carter & Mankad, 20212Carter, L., & Mankad, A. (2021). The Promises and Realities of Integration in Synthetic Biology: A View From Social Science. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8. View Publication. for recommendations for integrating technical and social science). We encourage the development, funding, and use of such pathways, but presently envision these case studies as: i) a starting point for technical researchers to recognize and reflect upon how such nontechnical considerations might influence the trajectory of their own research and its application to climate and sustainability challenges; and ii) a tool for highlighting the value and necessity of interdisciplinary teams that do have the expertise to identify, develop, and implement solutions that work.

Engineering biology research is often motivated by a deep sense of curiosity and optimism for the opportunities that engineering biological systems present for making the world a better place. The research ecosystem incentivizes creative and optimistic perspectives on research applications; funders are interested in addressing challenges as well. Although incentives or even opportunities are lacking to think critically about the holistic impacts of the development and use of a technology and balance that with how quickly biotechnology can provide innovative solutions, we encourage technical researchers to commit to doing so.

Nontechnical considerations and social dimensions

Solutions landscape: Biotechnology in the landscape of other developing approaches and solutions

Researchers and innovators across many disciplines are working hard to identify and develop technologies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Engineering biology-based solutions should be considered and weighed within that broader solutions ecosystem. Some challenges might best be addressed with a single, widely implemented approach, and other challenges must be met by the concerted efforts of many approaches in combination.

Feasibility: Practicality and feasibility of use and impact

Some biotechnologies may seem to offer innovative solutions to climate and sustainability challenges, but are impractical or not feasible at scale. Technical researchers might consider from the outset what impact a technology might have and how changes to different variables affect those impacts. For example, if carbon-capturing algae would need to be grown in high concentrations that negatively impacted other marine organisms and/or at a scale that required participation from all coastal nations, it may not be a practical solution. Additionally, the economic and technical feasibility of producing a biotechnology at scale should be considered at the outset to ensure a solution can be implemented or used at necessary scales, and that there could be a customer willing and able to pay for technology deployment.

Benefits and consequences: Uncertain or undetermined benefits and consequences of research and outcomes

The positive, negative, and neutral impacts of a technology can be difficult to fully predict in advance of its use. For example, the deployment of microbes engineered to capture and sequester carbon into soils could impact the soil microbiome and other ecosystem members including plants and insects. The microbes could enter waterways and affect downstream ecosystems. The extent of any ecosystem impacts and/or organism spread beyond a zone of application cannot be determined with complete certainty in advance of release. Uncertainty can be especially high early in technical research and development while the parameters and contexts for a technology’s potential use are still unclear. Even closed systems, for example where an engineered microbe is used in a bioindustrial process, can have uncertain eventual benefits due to variables around yield, scaling efficiencies, resource inputs (e.g., water and energy), and economic realities. Identifying variables that may impact the balance of positive, negative, and neutral, consequences early in the research process can help illuminate opportunities to approach technological development in ways that shift that balance toward greater positive impacts. Researchers can also become familiar with the rich ecosystem of innovation and discovery within and outside of engineering biology. Doing so may inform their own approaches and/or lead to cross-disciplinary approaches that increase the certainty that a biotechnology’s benefits will outweigh any negative impacts. Overall, the potential risks of using a technology should not be measured against ‘no risk,’ but against the likely outcomes and consequences of doing nothing or using alternative approaches that also have uncertain benefits and consequences.

Implementation: Regulatory or governance frameworks, access, and benefits-sharing

Engineering biology roadmaps look to shine a broad light on the possible technologies that could be developed in the coming years to decades. Cutting-edge technologies often move faster than regulatory frameworks can be developed or updated. Thus, when considering the development of innovative engineering biology technologies, researchers would be well-served by recognizing the local and international policy frameworks they must work within. Ultimately, policymakers and regulators have the authority to decide which technologies are deployed under what circumstances. Working with regulators to understand current and evolving frameworks (without seeking to unduly influence them) can help researchers develop technologies that fit within the current or likely bounds of policy.

Working with national regulators early in technical development is especially important when a biotechnology might have widespread or international impacts or implications. Diplomatic talks and negotiations may be necessary for the international community to align on accepted practices between countries. Researchers should also carefully consider the commercial viability and accessibility of their products. If partnerships with existing companies will be necessary for commercialization, researchers might explore which types of companies could be potential partners. For example, researchers might consider the benefits and challenges of licensing a biotechnology to an existing company and how that would influence who has or is given access to a product. Particularly in the context of this roadmap, researchers could consider the access and distribution of a biotechnology for its impacts and benefits to the climate globally.

Micro-level impacts: Effects on local populations, industries, environments, and economies

Some products of engineering biology might be used in specific regions or locales. Minimizing, mitigating, and/or eliminating negative impacts on local human communities and native flora and fauna should be a central priority for climate and sustainability efforts. The voices of local communities should be heard as policies are made about a technology’s use. Additionally, if/when genetic resources from a region are utilized, appropriate benefits-sharing measures should be implemented in accordance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity.3Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity. October 12, 2014. View Publication. The Nagoya Protocol recognizes that all members and parts of an ecosystem can be impacted by conservation and sustainability efforts, that local and indigenous populations have knowledge that can contribute to building and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, and that the information, practices, and innovations that arise from this knowledge should be made accessible to all parties in a fair and equitable manner.

Macro-level impacts: Implications for macro (e.g., national, global) populations and geopolitical relationships

Some technologies identified within this roadmap would utilize engineered organisms in open environments and/or consumer products. While a single regulatory body might conclude that the use of technology is safe and appropriate, others might give more or less weight to contextual factors or philosophically prefer a precautionary approach. It is also possible for engineered microbes to maliciously or accidentally spread beyond their intended environments in ways that exacerbate international tensions or inequities. Awareness of global contexts and potential macro-level impacts can inform research approaches toward biotechnologies that are safe, effective, and also likely to be implemented.

Competing values and priorities: Recognizing trade-offs and divergent values between individuals, institutions, communities, and nations

The values, priorities, identities, and life experiences of individuals, communities, and nation-states will change how, or if, they think biotechnologies should be used in given circumstances. For example, the relative value placed on the preservation of unaltered lands and ecosystems, community decision-making, equitable access and outcomes, economic opportunity, etc., will vary. Reasonable, informed people who care deeply about a healthy planet can arrive at different conclusions. Recognizing some of these factors that underpin conclusions can be useful to determining how engineering biology can most productively be applied to climate and sustainability challenges.

Case Studies

  • Case Study 1: Release of engineered algae with increased carbon capture capability in U.S. coastal waters off California.

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  • Case Study 2: Application of biofertilizers based on engineered rhizobia to corn fields in the American Midwest.

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  • Case Study 3: High efficiency lithium biomining in Nevada with engineered microbes.

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  • Case Study 4: Engineering cattle gut microbiomes to reduce methane emissions in American agriculture.

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  1. Viseu, A. (2015). Integration of social science into research is crucial. Nature, 525(7569), 291–291.
  2. Carter, L., & Mankad, A. (2021). The Promises and Realities of Integration in Synthetic Biology: A View From Social Science. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8.
  3. Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity. October 12, 2014. Retrieved from
Last updated: September 19, 2022
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