As well as the technological developments of digitalisation that characterise the “4th Industrial Revolution”, the field of biotechnology is shaping up to be just as dramatic.
In our 2018 set of Drivers of Change, we identified Crispr-Cas9, a gene-editing technique, as a break-through technology. The technique has now won the Nobel prize for its discoverers, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. In their 2012 paper, they described how this bacterial system could be used as “DNA scissors”. CRISPR is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous gene-editing systems and has since become ubiquitous in labs around the world.
Applications are envisaged in several fields. There are significant medical initiatives in curing genetic diseases, such as inherited blindness, blood disorders (e.g. sickle-cell anaemia) and lung cancer. Agricultural applications include increased grain weight and protein content in wheat, bacterial blight resistance in rice and herbicide resistance in several plants. There are also applications that promise higher quality meats or disease-resistant livestock. CRISPR can also help the environment as it can be used to produce biofuels from landfill and reducing methane emissions from cows. Within industrial biotech, a start-up company founded by Doudna is using CRISPR-based to improve the industrial fermentation process that is critical for the production of chemicals and enzymes. Bio-engineers have also introduced mutations into an enzyme from the leaf compost bug making it break down the PET plastic from which drinks bottles are made. The material can then be used to create new food-grade plastic bottles.
Biotechnology is also being employed in the battle against Covid-19. CRISPR’s ability to rapidly and accurately diagnose a wide range of diseases is being brought to bear; RNA vaccines are being developed rapidly.
CRISPR is not without its controversies. A European court ruling made gene-edited crops subject to the same stringent regulations as other genetically modified organisms (GMOs), despite the CRISPR editing being small enough that the crops are indistinguishable from naturally occurring organisms. More dramatically, there was uproar at a Chinese scientist gene-editing embryos which were then used to produce babies – potentially rewriting the gene pool of future generations by altering the human germ line. That incident has at least served to energise the scientific community to greater ethical control.
Bio-engineering mosquitoes could produce males that have been modified to produce only sterile offspring, thereby limiting the spread of malaria. When released into the wild to create a “gene drive”, they could mutate, spreading genes that researchers never planned for and find difficult to control once they spread outside the lab. In any event, the role of mosquitoes in the wider ecosystem may not be fully understood, and could create unintended consequences. The balance of risk and reward here is hard to calculate.
More generally, Cambridge University’s Centre for Existential Risk has a full research project on Global Catastrophic Biological Risks looking into bio-safety and bio-security.
Further advances are expected from greater understanding of the genetic code. “Precision medicine” is an innovative approach to care that takes into account an individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle. Combining an analysis of the specific genome with sensors monitoring behaviour, AI systems can predict outcomes and design interventions. Many people have been concerned that sequencing individual’s genomes (and hence predicting probabilities of various diseases) might affect one’s insurance. The UK Government has agreed a voluntary Code of Conduct with the Association of British Insurers that restricts this, but whether that can be maintained permanently is open to question.
A separate field is nanomedicine – a branch of medicine that applies the knowledge and tools of nanotechnology to the prevention and treatment of disease. Nanomedicine involves the use of nanoscale materials, such as biocompatible nanoparticles and nanobots, for diagnosis, delivery, sensing or actuation purposes in a living organism. Main applicationsare
- Target specification: attaching nanoparticles onto drugs or liposomes to increase specific localisation. Since different cell types have unique properties, nanotechnology can be used to “recognise” cells of interest. This allows associated drugs and therapeutics to reach diseased tissue while avoiding healthy cells.
- Controlled drug release: research efforts are focused on trying to understand how to release diagnostic molecules and drugs from liposomes with heat, and microbubbles using ultrasound.
- Understanding different populations: tailoring nanomedicine behaviour to different physiological characteristics of patients and their disease states.
Biotech is also being utilised to grow artificial meat in the laboratory. “Cultured meat” is produced by taking a cell, preferably a stem-cell, from an animal, introducing a sample into a bioreactor (a vat of culture medium) where the cells proliferate exponentially and can be harvested. The resulting meat cell mush can be formed into a plethora of unstructured items, from patties to sausages – with or without other ingredients added for texture. Adding an edible “scaffolding” enables the production of more realistic, textured meat. However, as yet there remain many challenges in producing meat at scale and an attractive cost. There are also several ethical issues.
A similar technique is applied to lab-grown organs, notably livers. Initially used to research liver disease treatments, the technology is advancing towards the point where liver transplants might be possible. An advantage here is that if the stem-cell is taken from the patient themselves there is far less chance of the body rejecting the transplant. After decades of research, clinical trials of artificially made blood are getting underway, offering hope of a backup to human donors.
Biotechnology can also interact with the digital world. CRISPR screening combined with machine learning can identify anti-viral compounds that may prevent viral infection. The focus is now on treating coronaviruses, including COVID-19.
Conversely, DNA is in effect an information storage mechanism – it can be sequenced (“read”) and synthesised (“written to”), and is resilient and long-lasting. Its great advantage though is its capacity. E.Coli has a storage density of about 1019 bits per cubic centimetre – all the world’s current storage needs for a year could be met by a one-metre cube of DNA. Recent advances work at room temperature, making it much more feasible to develop DNA data management technologies that are viable in real-world scenarios.
Biotechnology may not have had the hype that AI has received, but it looks to be just as likely to reach a viable plateau of profitable applications. Like AI, there remain several ethical and public acceptance issues and serious risks to mitigate, which could delay its implementation, but which if tackled early enough should be possible to overcome.
Next week will be the last in our series of updated drivers of change – dealing with the changing social attitudes of different generations.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.
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