What Biotechnology Wants
It has become evident that the primary lesson of the study of evolution is that all evolution is coevolution: every organism is evolving in tandem with the organisms around it.
— Kevin Kelly
We are not what we think we are.
That thought has been reverberating in my mind for many years now. As we learn more and more about ourselves, what was once classified as “junk” DNA turns out to function as gene switches, controlling facial features and likely much more. Also, our genome is filled with viral DNA, and from just what we can recognize, we have about 100,000 fragments. At least 8% of our genome is viral (we are already GMOs) and “we” are outnumbered by at least 10x by the bacterial cells that reside on and in the human body.
So what is humanity? We are biotech; we’re only just now realizing the extent to which we’ve been altered by the biology around us.
I felt the title of this article was apt, as Kevin Kelly once wrote about how technology (and biological evolution) drove and continues to drive Homo sapiens development. Kelly calls that driving force the technium, a word designated to signify the greater global and massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.
Biotech wants us. It wants us to continue the path that it has started us down, changing our fundamental genetic code and adding, manipulating, and testing genes to alter ourselves and the biology all around us. It wants us to quicken the pace of change with tools evolution has already provided us with, such as the basic tools we need to cut and manipulate DNA, the source code of life. Biotech wants us to embrace it with both hands!
So what’s next in biotech, and what are our tributaries? One of the best and easiest to understand classifications of biotech is based on the rainbow code of biotech. It states:
- Green biotech
- Agricultural biotech isn’t about just your run-of-the-mill soybean genetically modified organism (GMO), but drought-resistant crops, micropropagation of different plant varieties, tools for identifying the best plants through molecular fingerprinting, and novel breeding methods (including double haploids and increased chromosome numbers). AgBio has the potential to support both current and novel needs for food, energy, and materials as humanity grows from 7 to 10 billion people.
- Yellow biotech
- Nutritional biotech is one of the oldest forms of biotech. It has been used to fortify foods through fermentation, creating wine, beer, cheeses, breads, and other more nutritious foods through the use of enzymes, microbes, and fungi. Many of the techniques used to create today’s foods—including one of my personal favorites, sourdough bread, which was likely created in ancient Egypt and was the primary food source of marching Roman soldiers due to its nutritional content—have played a vital role in nourishing most larger human civilizations. Innovation potential in this space is still vast for new foods, flavors, and fortifications!
- Red biotech
Medicine and human health, the area with which I’m most familiar, has been transformative for human health and wellness, contrary to many of the bunk science claims that anti-vaccine campaigners tout. Just in the United States, vaccines have eradicated measles, diphtheria, mumps, smallpox, and polio. Measles alone once had 500,000 yearly cases; now that number is nearly zero.
Antibiotics have been revolutionary. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “In 1900, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), and diarrhea and enteritis, which (together with diphtheria) caused one third of all deaths.” Forty percent of those deaths were in children under the age of five. Imagine that! Red biotech has been an overwhelming success, even making massive strides in treating and delaying diseases often associated with old age. These diseases, too, will fall to science as the power of our tools and our understanding of both genomics and human biology increases. With the announcement of Calico, a Google-backed startup aimed to combat aging-related disease, and Human Longevity Inc., formed by J. Craig Venter with the aim of sequencing and unraveling the meaning of 100k genomes per year, the race to fix the aging human body from a data-driven perspective is now beginning in earnest.
- White biotech
Industrial biotechnology is a rapidly evolving space. One of the trendy new terms people have been using for industrial bio is “synthetic biology.” I have to admit, I’m not really a fan. Synbio is just a new buzzword that some investors seem to be falling in love with, but the trends in industrial bio are very real and have immense potential!
This sector includes the replacement of standard industrial processes with biotech processes to create pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food additives, chemicals, fuels, enzymes, and other materials. In many cases, this results in a decrease in the overall cost of production and increased availability of products that are harder to synthesize or refine. Two fascinating examples of industrial biotech companies moving this field forward are Plantic, which produces biopolymers and plastics based on corn, and Novozymes, which makes many of the enzymes used in laundry detergents, automatic dishwashing machines, and the food and beverage industry.
- Gray biotech
- This area is focused on environmental protection, which includes both premeditated efforts to protect environments, such as waste water treatment, and also efforts to remove toxins or contaminants from the environment through bioremediation, the use of microbes to degrade oil in oil spills, and the use of transgenic plants to remove heavy metals and organic contaminants from the soil.
- Blue biotech
- Often called “marine biotech,” blue biotech refers to the harnessing of the ocean’s genetic diversity through its flora and fauna. Companies like GlycoMar have developed anti-inflammatory therapies, and others like Synthetic Genomics are working on the potential of harnessing algae to create biofuels.
- Gold biotech
This field acknowledges the importance of the tools of bioinformatics and computer science in the evolution of the biotech industry. Players include software companies like DNA Nexus that are attempting to use advanced tools and cloud-based infrastructure to increase the analysis of genetic and genomic information.
As Alan Harrington states, we must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order.
Welcome to the beginning of the beginning of humanity’s mastery of the rainbow of biology!