From Evolution to the BioRevolution: Welcome to the Future

BY Justin Quinn

The BioRevolution is not coming. The BioRevolution is here, and represents one of the most fantastic investment opportunities in human history. What is it, why should we care, and how can we participate?

Inside this article:

  • What is the BioRevolution, exactly, and what makes it so special?
  • How is the BioRevolution going to reshape our health, economy, and society?
  • How can we participate in the BioRevolution?

What Is The BioRevolution?

A cyclical history of revolutions

The history of humanity has been rhythmically patterned by a few major industrial revolutions. In the Bronze and Iron Ages, we learned to use metals, alongside stone and wood. Fast forward to the 18th century, and we learned to harness steam, in addition to animal, wind, and water-based energy. We discovered electricity in the 19th century, and most recently, saw the eruption of the digital/IT revolution in the late 20th century.

The BioRevolution today

Today, the BioRevolution (think Fourth Industrial Revolution) is here – and here to stay. The world of data sciences has converged with the world of biology, allowing us to leverage huge volumes of biological data in breakthrough ways. Research and development advances are impacting fields as broad-reaching as health care, agriculture and the food industry, and textile manufacturing.

Already vast in speed and scope, the BioRevolution distinguishes itself from previous revolutions at a fundamental level – focused on the very building blocks of life’s own biological machinery. Everything that we are, consume, and use can be tweaked, manipulated, or upgraded. The BioRevolution thus has the potential to have broad impact on every sphere of society, from our supply and value chains to our economies (think cybersecurity and biowarfare) to our governments (think democratization of access to biological tools and international legislation) – but beginning, startlingly, with us.

How Can It Help?

Technologies such as genetic sequencing, genetic engineering, AI-powered analytics, synthetic biology and biological computing have absolutely revolutionized the medical field, ag-food industry, and biomaterials synthesis.

  1. MEDICINE AND BIOLOGY

    Genetic sequencing for disease prevention, diagnostics, and treatment. Following an inverse Moore’s law, DNA sequencing has plummeted in cost in the last few decades, alongside growing increasingly fast. The result has been the generation of ample genetic data – and, after being processed and analyzed, extraordinary insights into our biological makeup. A baby’s genome can now be prenatally or early postnatally sequenced to identify, prevent, and treat rare developmental disorders. Such diagnostic precision and improved clinical management are life-saving (1,2). Relatedly, genetic sequencing and derived analyses can be used to develop individualized therapies, catering treatments to individuals’ genomes and microbiomes, and ushering in the new era of precision medicine (3).

    Genetic engineering for disease treatment. The Nobel Prize-winning genetic engineering tool CRISPR is routinely being leveraged for disease treatment.  In a recent trial, a single CRISPR treatment targeting a misfolded liver protein was able to successfully reduce its levels in six people affected by (otherwise fatal) transthyretin amyloidosis, a rare disorder characterized by the abnormal buildup of the misshapen protein in various organs and nerves (4). The challenge today simply remains to scale computation to keep pace with data generation (5) – reflecting the cat and mouse game between Data Sciences and Biology so defining of the BioRevolution.

    AI analytics for protein folding prediction and drug development and discovery. Key to protein function, protein folding – and the prediction thereof – is key to understanding where, how, and with whom proteins do what they do, and Google’s AlphaFold was able, in 2020, to use AI to rapidly predict protein folding – solving a 50-year-old challenge in Biology. Meanwhile, AI has emerged as a critical lever to the development and design of first-in-class drugs (6), as well as to the unprecedentedly rapid identification of disease-tailored antibiotics. A trail-blazing machine-learning algorithm has recently identified new antibiotics from a pool of 100 million molecules – including against tuberculosis and other bacterial strains previously considered untreatable (7).

    Biological computing for cancer treatment. Cells are biological computers with DNA-encoded software – if you can decode the software, you can recode the cells for a specific purpose. To this end, scientists have programmed bacterial cells to target cancer cells and release toxins locally. In parallel, a team has been able to embed a diagnostic “computer” network into human cells, making them able to identify specific cancer cells based on the presence of five cancer-specific molecules – and trigger cancer cell destruction accordingly (8).

    Synthetic biology and the generation of 3D-printed tissues. Stem cells are now routinely printed to grow 3D organs (9). 3D-printed thick vascularized tissue constructs made of human stem cells, extracellular matrix, and endothelial cells have been created to replace or repair a patient’s blood vessels – setting the stage for the limitless potential of artificial organ printing and regenerative medicine.

    In the next two decades, biological innovations could address 1-3% of the total global burden of disease – in due time, channeling the full potential of the BioRevolution could alleviate up to 45% of the global disease burden

  2.  AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD INDUSTRIES

    Genetic sequencing and engineering for agricultural optimization. By genetically profiling bacteria and fungi from soil, companies such as Trace Genomics are helping tailor seeds and nutrients to specific soil compositions, while predicting soil diseases early on. Meanwhile, CRISPR is being used to make crops more weather- or disease-resistant, including to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and pests (10). Finally, ventures such as Joyn Bio are engineering microbes that will make cereal corn, wheat, and rice convert nitrogen from the air into a form they can use to grow – reducing the industry’s reliance on costly, greenhouse gas emitting synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

    Synthetic biology and cultured meats and seafoods. Cultured meat and seafood can now be made by growing animal cells in the lab. Meanwhile, players at the vanguard of the food industry are experimenting with synthetic molecules and pluripotential stem cells to replace rather expensive growth factors – and expected to turn cultured meat and seafood into a cost-competitive industry within the next decade.

  3. BIOMATERIALS AND BIOFUEL DEVELOPMENT

    Synthetic biology for materials science. Nylon can be made from genetically engineered yeast instead of petrochemicals, leather is being synthesized from mushroom roots, and self-healing, biodegradable fibers are being produced from squid genes. In the world of civil engineering, certain bacterial strains are being used to develop a biocement that is more water resistant (11), while others have been genetically engineered to incorporate into calcium carbonate-rich biocement capable of repairing its own cracks (12).

     Synthetic biology for biofuel production. Finally, synthetic biology is being harnessed to produce biofuels by improving current methods of plant-based production or establishing new cell “factories” capable of generating energy from both traditional and non-traditional sources of feedstock.

    As much as 60% of the biological (think wood, animals) and nonbiological (think cement and plastics) inputs to the global economy could, in theory, eventually be produced based on biological innovations. Not only would these help feed the 10 billion (people) by 2050, but they would also reduce energy and water consumption while cutting greenhouse gas emissions – 400 such biological innovations currently in the pipeline could cut yearly greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 9% by 2050.

What Should We Be Aware Of?

Ongoing challenges: Biowarfare and data privacy

Of course, biowarfare and data privacy remain challenges in the new era of the BioRevolution. Technologies are increasingly democratized – CRISPR kits are now available on the internet – and a low bar to access has resulted in the emergence of DIY biology communities. Anyone versed well enough in biology could design and release a new pathogen – a group of researchers in 2018 reconstructed a poxvirus that infects horses for $100,000 using mail-order DNA. Meanwhile, current legislation, having evolved in the second half of the 20th century, is primarily aimed at regulating state-directed biowarfare programs – woefully un-adapted to the BioRevolution (13). In light of the rapid expansion of digital technologies fueling concern about personal data, preventing biowarfare and protecting data privacy will need to be guided by reasonable legislation in the decades to come (14).

Why Should We Care?

The BioRevolution will affect everything and everyone – and requires multistakeholder engagement

From Evolution to the BioRevolution, we are now at a stage where we are manipulating the very own hardware from which we have been built and by which we operate. The breadth of radically new products in the pipeline is simply astonishing. Predicted to directly result in 2-4 trillion dollars worth of economic impact in the next decades, these will disrupt value chains, reshuffle profit pools, and support new business models. We have no other choice but to engage all stakeholders, from the public and private sectors, from academics to civilians, as it is incumbent on all of us to embrace it, learn about it, and participate in it as fully as possible. With people well informed and risks well managed, the BioRevolution will effectively reshape our health, economy, and society for the better.

References

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