Next Decade Trends in Biotech:
10 Sci-Fi Ideas That could Become a Reality
When I was applying to graduate school 7 years ago, I wrote in my personal statement that the 21st century will be known as the Age of Biology. The 20th century was defined by chemistry, with the development of petroleum refinement and its derivative products. We now understand the unsustainability of these processes and the catastrophic effect the past 100 years have had on our environment, so we are turning to alternative ways to satisfy the demands of the growing Earth's population.
Seven years ago I was making a hopeful prediction inspired by optimism of starting a PhD program in a new and exciting field of Biotechnology, and that prediction is looking more and more true every day. So, I will try to do it again. Here are 10 wilder-than-science-fiction biotechnology trends that may become reality in our lifetime:
Integration of computers and biology – People who are worried about AI taking over the world have a reason to worry: recently there have been strides in fusing machines and humans to create real-life cyborgs. Whereas regular prosthetics use the movements of muscles to control the bionic limb, new devices are equipped with a brain-computer interface (BCI) that allows the user to manipulate the prosthetic directly from the brain. Murphy team at McGuire VA Medical Center showed surface scalp electrodes can transmit brainwave data to a computer software program, allowing the patient to activate knee-unlocking switch through mental imaging. Can we also connect our brains to computers to give us superpowers? It has already been demonstrated that you can implant a BCI device into a human and use it to give instructions to a computer. Now direct brain-to-brain communication enabled by recording electroencephalographs and sending magnetic impulses to recipient’s brain. Is the internet of brains going to be the next big thing?
DNA data storage – As demand for data storage is growing exponentially, Moore’s law cannot keep up because of physical space limitations for chips. DNA, on the other hand, has a much denser energy storage capacity than silicon-based semiconductors, operating on a quaternary instead of a binary system. A group of scientists working at Microsoft headed by Luis Ceze and Karin Strauss have been leading the field of DNA data storage for more than a decade. In this process data is first translated from 0-1 to A-T-G-C language and synthesized as DNA. To retrieve data, the DNA is sequenced and decoded back to the original binary code. We are not quite there yet, as using DNA to store information will require significant improvements in sequencing technology. But hey, if we can fit all of Wikipedia in a tiny vial of DNA, I would say it looks promising!
Gene edited everything – The global market for CRISPR gene editing applications is predicted to reach $5.3 billion by 2025. From gene editing crops, to biomedical applications, microbes, gene drives and more, CRISPR is changing the way we approach problems in biology. The fact that CRISPR edited organisms do not fall under the category of GMO will likely result in wider acceptance of CRISPRed products by consumers. However, note that I did not call section CRISPR editing. CRISPR is the hottest gene editing tool on the market right now, but other technologies are being developed as we speak. I can foresee another similarly transformative technology emerging on the market very soon. Add to that the speed at which the DNA synthesis is advancing, you can count on one thing: CRISPR on not, GMO or non-GMO, our food, beer, supplements and cosmetics will all be likely produced with the help of gene editing technology.
Lab-on-a-chip – Theranos was a sobering call for biotechnology investors to actually look into the feasibility of the technologies they are funding instead of chasing unicorns, but labs-on-a-chip are still a promising future technology. Using a combination of microfluidics and sophisticated chemistries, these devices allow to perform complex testing procedures on a tiny chip. The chips use small input (for example, a drop of patient’s blood), which cuts cost of analysis and time to get results. This could make expensive laboratory tests possible to perform in your own home, to diagnose illnesses in remote areas, allow better quality control for small manufacturing (e.g. food) businesses and more.
Recoded synthetic microorganisms – Since I come from the field of microbial biotechnology, this one is my personal favorite. Technological advances have recently taken biology into a true synthetic territory. In 2010 Craig Venter and colleagues assembled the first synthetic genome from artificially synthesized pieces of DNA. Earlier this year scientists from Jason Chin’s lab created a bug where 3 of the 64 traditional three-letter codons for naturally occurring amino acids were freed up for incorporation of non-natural amino acids. In a sense, they simplified nature’s genetic language. The cool thing is those three extra codons can be used to encode new functions into the synthetic organism. For example, these microbes are not susceptible to viruses and cannot transfer genes to other species – a huge biosafety concern. They can also incorporate non-natural amino acids that have unique qualities. An even more mind-blowing innovation is the expansion of the genetic alphabet. The new alphabet is called “hachimoji” DNA uses 8 nucleotides instead of the usual four. Although it has not yet been demonstrated that those new letters can support life, scientists did show that the four synthetic nucleotides can be transcribed into RNA. Imagine all the possibilities!
Personalized medicine – While the reliability of popular genetic testing services have come under question lately, whole-genome sequencing is becoming more accessible with the price around $600 and trending toward $100. What does this mean for you? Well, you can sequence your whole genome and… not really know what to do with it. For now. However, the abundance of genetic data and advances in computational biology are helping scientists to find connections between genetic variations associated with certain common diseases. Genetic information combined with other parameters collected through wearable technology can further improve disease prediction and prevention. Wearable devices could lower hospital costs by as much as 16% in the next five years by helping predict quiescent conditions, like heart disease. Plus individual genetic variations can help identify better treatment options. As technologies are improving, we can envision applications such as blood sugar sensors combined with automated insulin injections. No more reminders to take your pills!
Lab-grown animal products – You have probably heard of the Impossible Burger. It has taken the restaurant industry by storm and was named one of the best inventions of 2019 by TIME magazine. It has earned Impossible Foods a place on the list of biotech unicorns, but this is not the only animal substitute product that can be made in the lab. The new biotechnology sector called cellular agriculture uses synthetic biology, bioengineering and tissue engineering to create animal product substitutes such as cultured meat, eggs, milk, silk, leather and even horseshoe crab blood. These products are embraced by vegetarian and vegan communities and have favorable environmental impact. Most important of all – your taste buds will approve!
CRISPR babies, of course – the CRISPR baby scandal divided the scientific community last year. While most agree that the way the study was done had serious ethical problems, there is little doubt that human embryo editing is going to take place. In fact, other scientists are already following suit. This raises debates about the ethical issues associated with human genetic engineering and germline editing, as the science is outpacing regulatory processes. But some scientists say this is not only inevitable but will generate greater good in the end. So perhaps in the near future protecting your future child from genetic diseases will also come with picking the color of your baby’s eyes and giving them superhuman abilities… like glow-in-the dark hair!
Sequencing of all life – an ambitious project aimed at sequencing all of eukaryotic species on Earth has been undertaken by a consortium of scientists from around the world. Dubbed the “moonshot of biology”, the Earth BioGenome Project is estimated for cost $4.7 billion and take roughly 10 years to complete, resulting in a complete sequence catalog of existing genomes. It is estimated that only 10-20% of species have been sequenced, and the project aims to discover the rest in order to characterize and preserve biological diversity. Bioprospecting of microbial species has given us thousands of commercially valuable small molecules, drugs, enzymes and genes. One can only imagine the endless creative possibilities that this expanded library of genetic diversity, combined with advances in bioinformatics, will offer to biotechnology.
Bringing back extinct species – Last but not least, straight-out-of-Jurassic-Park stuff: biotechnology’s bid to resurrect long-gone species. Animal cloning has been around for a while now, ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned from an adult somatic cell in 1996. Animal cloning is no longer science fiction – for only about $50,000 you can clone your favorite pet (the real question is though – is it still the same pet?). But now scientists are working on a more radical goal of resurrecting extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth. Japanese scientists were able to transfer nuclear material from a well-preserved woolly mammoth into mouse cell, observing biological activity. George Church of MIT is also trying to recreate the woolly mammoth, but using a different approach: reverse engineering the animal from a modern-day elephant. I have to agree, it would be pretty cool to bring back prehistoric animals. But if I learned anything from Jurassic Park – no dinosaurs, please.
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