Sometimes, a person needs a change from feeling rotten about the pandemic and the economy. One needs a sense that, if not right away, the future holds some imaginative and exciting possibilities. A group at the the McKinsey Global Institute–Michael Chui, Matthias Evers, James Manyika, Alice Zheng, amd Travers Nisbet–have been working for about a year on their report: \”The Bio Revolution: Innovations transforming economies,societies, and our lives\” (May 2020). It\’s got a last-minute text box about COVID-19, emphasizing the speed with which biomedical research has been able to move into action in looking for vaccines and treatments. But the heart of the report is that the authors looked at the current state of biotech, and came up with a list of about 400 \”cases that
are scientifically conceivable today and that could plausibly be commercialized by 2050. … Over the next ten to 20 years, we estimate that these applications alone could have direct economic impact of between $2 trillion and $4 trillion globally per year.\”
For me, reports like this aren\’t about the economic projections, which are admittedly shaky, but rather are a way of emphasizing the importance of increasing national research and development efforts across a spectrum of technologies. As the authors point out, the collapsing costs of sequencing and editing genes are reshaping what\’s possible with biotech. Here are some of the possibilities they discuss.
When it comes to physical materials, the report notes that in the long run:
As much as 60 percent of the physical inputs to the global economy could, in principle, be produced biologically. Our analysis suggests that around one-third of these inputs are biological materials, such as wood, cotton, and animals bred for food. For these materials, innovations can improve upon existing production processes. For instance, squalene, a moisturizer used in skin-care products, is traditionally derived from shark liver oil and can now be produced more sustainably through fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. The remaining two-thirds are not biological materials—examples include plastics and aviation fuels—but could, in principle, be produced using innovative biological processes or be replaced with substitutes using bio innovations. For example, nylon is already being made using genetically engineered microorganisms instead of petrochemicals. To be clear, reaching the full potential to produce these inputs biologically is a long way off, but even modest progress toward it could transform supply and demand and economics of, and participants in, the provision of physical inputs. …
Biology has the potential in the future to determine what we eat, what we wear, the products we put on our skin, and the way we build our physical world. Significant potential exists to improve the characteristics of materials, reduce the emissions profile of manufacturing and processing, and shorten value chains. Fermentation, for centuries used to make bread and brew beer, is now being used to create fabrics such as artificial spider silk. Biology is increasingly being used to create novel materials that can raise quality, introduce entirely new capabilities, be biodegradable, and be produced in a way that generates significantly less carbon emissions. Mushroom roots rather than animal hide can be used to make leather. Plastics can be made with yeast instead of petrochemicals. …
A significant share of materials developed through biological means are biodegradable and generate less carbon during manufacture and processing than traditional materials. New bioroutes are being developed to produce chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. …
A deeper understanding of human genetics offers potential for improvements in health care, where the social benefits go well beyond higher economic output. The report estimates that there are 10,000 human diseases caused by a single gene.
A new wave of innovation is under way that includes cell, gene, RNA, and microbiome therapies to treat or prevent disease, innovations in reproductive medicine such as carrier screening, and improvements to drug development and delivery. Many more options are being explored and becoming available to treat monogenic (caused by mutations in a single gene) diseases such as sickle cell anemia, polygenic diseases (caused by multiple genes) such as cardiovascular disease, and infectious diseases such as malaria. We estimate between 1 and 3 percent of the total global burden of disease could be reduced in the next ten to 20 years from these applications—roughly the equivalent of eliminating the global disease burden of lung cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer combined. Over time, if the full potential is captured, 45 percent of the global disease burden could be addressed using science that is conceivable today. …
An estimated 700,000 deaths globally every year are the result of vector-borne infectious diseases. Until recently, controlling these infectious diseases by altering the genomes of the entire population of the vectors was considered difficult because the vectors reproduce in the wild and lose any genetic alteration within a few generations. However, with the advent of CRISPR, gene drives with close to 100 percent probability of transmission are within reach. This would offer a permanent solution to preventing most vector-borne diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, schistosomiasis, and Lyme disease.
The potential gains for agriculture as the global population heads toward 10 billion and higher seem pretty important, too.
Applications such as low-cost, high-throughput microarrays have vastly increased the amount of plant and animal sequencing data, enabling lower-cost artificial selection of desirable traits based on genetic markers in both plants and animals. This is known as marker-assisted breeding and is many times quicker than traditional selective breeding methods. In addition, in the 1990s, genetic engineering emerged commercially to improve the traits of plants (such as yields and input productivity) beyond traditional breeding. Historically, the first wave of genetically engineered crops has been referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs); these are organisms with foreign (transgenic) genetic material introduced. Now, recent advances in genetic engineering (such as the emergence of CRISPR) have enabled highly specific cisgenic changes (using genes from sexually compatible plants) and intragenic changes (altering gene combinations and regulatory sequencings belonging to the recipient plant). Other innovations in this domain include using the microbiome of plants, soil, animals, and water to improve the quality and productivity of agricultural production; and the development of alternative proteins, including lab-grown meat, which could take pressure off the environment from traditional livestock and seafood.
More? Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is already a reality as a consumer product, but it will start to be combined with other goods and services based on your personal genetic profile: what vitamins and probiotics to take, meal services, cosmetics, whitening teeth, monitoring health, and more.
Pushing back against rising carbon emissions?
Genetically engineered plants can potentially store more CO2 for longer periods than their natural counterparts. Plants normally take in CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in their roots. The Harnessing Plant Initiative at the Salk Institute is using gene editing to create plants with deeper and more extensive root systems that can store more carbon than typical plants. These roots are also engineered to produce more suberin or cork, a naturally occurring carbon-rich substance found in roots that absorbs carbon, resists decomposition (which releases carbon back into the atmosphere), may enrich soil, and helps plants resist stress. When these plants die, they release less carbon back into the atmosphere than conventional plants. …
Algae, present throughout the biosphere but particularly in marine and freshwater environments, are among the most efficient organisms for carbon sequestration and photosynthesis; they are generally considered photosynthetically more efficient than terrestrial plants. Potential uses of microalgal biomass after sequestration could include biodiesel production, fodder for livestock, and production of colorants and vitamins. Using microalgae to sequester carbon has a number of advantages. They do not require arable land and are capable of surviving well in places that other crop plants cannot inhabit, such as saline-alkaline water, land, and wastewater. Because microalgae are tiny, they can be placed virtually anywhere, including cities. They also grow rapidly. Most important, their CO2 fixation efficiency has been estimated at ten to 50 times higher than that of terrestrial plants.
Using biotech to remediate earlier environmental damage or aid recycling?
One example is genetically engineered microbes that can be used to break down waste and toxins, and could, for instance, be used to reclaim mines. Some headway is being made in using microbes to recycle textiles. Processing cotton, for instance, is highly resource-intensive, and dwindling resources are constraining the production of petroleum-based fibers such as acrylic, polyester, nylon, and spandex. There is a great deal of waste, with worn-out and damaged clothes often thrown away rather than repaired. Less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, representing a loss of more than $100 billion a year.Los Angeles–based Ambercycle has genetically engineered microbes to digest polymers from old textiles and convert them into polymers that can be spun into yarns. Engineered microbes can also assist in the treatment of wastewater. In the United States, drinking water and wastewater systems account for between 3 and 4 percent of energy use and emit more than 45 million tons of GHG a year. Microbes—also known as microbial fuel cells—can convert sewage into clean water as well as generate the electricity that powers the process.
What about longer-run possibilities, still very much under research, that might bear fruit out beyond 2050?
- \”Biobatteries are essentially fuel cells that use enzymes to produce electricity from sugar. Interest is growing in their ability to convert easily storable fuel found in everyday sugar into electricity and the potential energy density this would provide. At 596 ampere hours per kilogram, the density of sugar would be ten times that of current lithium-ion batteries.\”
- \”Biocomputers that employ biology to mimic silicon, including the use of DNA to store data, are being researched. DNA is about one million times denser than hard-disk storage; technically, one kilogram of DNA could store the entirety of the world’s data (as of 2016).\”
- Of course, if people are going to live in space or on other planets, biotech will be of central importance.
If your ideas about the technologies of the future begin and end with faster computing power, you are not dreaming big enough.