Collaborating constructively for sustainable biotechnology


It is frequently claimed that synthetic biology offers biologically-based routes for producing chemicals and materials that are more sustainable than fossil-derived incumbents. A new paper in Scientific Reports probes this claim, for the case of bio-based nylon, using both deliberative and analytical approaches within a framework of Constructive Sustainability Assessment.

Tackling the pressing sustainability needs of society will require the development and application of new technologies. Biotechnology, emboldened by recent advances in synthetic biology, offers to generate sustainable biologically-based routes to chemicals and materials as alternatives to fossil-derived incumbents. Yet, the sustainability potential of biotechnology is not without trade-offs. In our new paper, we probe this capacity for sustainability for the case of bio-based nylon using both deliberative and analytical approaches within a framework of Constructive Sustainability Assessment. We highlight the potential for life cycle CO2 and N2O savings with bio-based processes, but report mixed results in other environmental and social impact categories. Importantly, we demonstrate how this knowledge can be generated collaboratively and constructively within companies at an early stage to anticipate consequences and to inform the modification of designs and applications. Application of the approach demonstrated here provides an avenue for technological actors to better understand and become responsive to the sustainability implications of their products, systems and actions.

“Collaborating constructively for sustainable biotechnology” (Sci Rep 9, 19033, 2019) is written by Nicholas E. Matthews, Carrie A. Cizauskas, Donovan S. Layton, Laurence Stamford & Philip Shapira. The paper presents one of the first detailed studies of the sustainability of new synthetic biology products. The full paper (with supplementary analyses) is available, open access and free to download.

Nick Mathews has written an additional “Behind the Paper” blog on Nature Research Sustainability Community.

The framework for Constructive Sustainability Assessment (CSA) enables the application of sustainability assessments to emerging technologies as part of a broader deliberative approach. CSA blends life-cycle thinking with principles of responsible research and innovation. This results in four design principles – transdisciplinarity, opening-up, exploring uncertainty and anticipation – that can be followed when applying sustainability assessments to emerging technologies. For more about CSA, select this link.