The Synthetic Biology Project run by the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center has produced a report on government funding for synthetic biology that shows the US powering ahead – with most of money arriving in just the past three years.
According to the report, Europe government funding for synthetic biology outpaced US for the first three years tracked – from 2005 to 2007 – but was then suddenly overtaken as US projects attracted a massive increase in money.
The 2008 spikes follow a period when a number of projects attracted public attention. The J Craig Venter Institute demonstrated that it was possible to transplant a genome from one related species of bacteria cell to another; the team at UC Berkeley cut a deal to deliver the fruits of its artemisinin-synthesis project to Sanofi-Aventis in exchange for an agreement for the antimalarial to be manufactured and sold at near cost; and a crop of biofuel specialists popped up describing how they would transform bacteria and algae to make alternatives to diesel and petroleum.
Some of the spike may also be due to a recategorisation of projects. Synthetic biology has a blurred boundary so it’s not difficult to rework project proposals and grants to accommodate it rather than older definitions such as genetic modification.
For example, since 2006, the US Department of Energy alone has spent more than $700m on synthetic-biology research. The report points out: “Sources with the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) suggested the entire budgets of the Genomic Sciences Program and the Joint Genome Institute could be classified as synthetic-biology research.”
However, the report calculates that total US spending to date is lower, at $430m by assuming a more conservative level of funding from the DoE than the one proposed by the government agency: “We…cut its overall numbers in half.”
Medical and agriculture funding in the US lags biofuel work by a long way. The National Institute of Health has made $48m in awards since 2005 and the Department of Agriculture less than $3m. It was not clear how much the Department of Homeland Security and DARPA have spent. DARPA has only revealed a figure of $20m as a line item in its report for fiscal 2011.
Where funding for European funding falls is less clear as it is far more fragmented. But the project has said it wants to put together more detailed information as it continues to look at this area.