May 16, 2020 - Science

A coming bio revolution is poised to change the world

Illustration of the earth inside a petri dish

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Increasingly inexpensive genetic sequencing and engineering tools could upend everything from health care to fuel.

Why it matters: This bio revolution could lead to a world that is more sustainable and even extend human lifespans. But its full extent is dependent on social acceptance — and carries serious risks as well.

What's happening: The scientific reaction to COVID-19 illustrates the rapid change in the biological sciences, says Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). "For SARS-CoV-2, it took a matter of weeks between identifying the new disease and sequencing it, compared to months for the original SARS virus."

But the response to COVID-19 only scratches the surface of what the bio revolution may make possible.

  • A new report from MGI predicts as much as 60% of the physical inputs to the global economy — think food, fuel, even the fabric of our clothes — could be produced through bioinnovations.
  • As much as 45% of the current disease burden could be alleviated using biological science that is at least conceivable today.
  • All told, the use cases outlined in the MGI report — most of which fall outside human health — could have a direct economic impact of up to $4 trillion a year over the next 10 to 20 years.

How it works: The chief driver of these changes is the rapid drop in cost of the tools that enable us to understand and increasingly manipulate the stuff of life, including in our own bodies.

  • The cost of DNA sequencing is decreasing at a rate faster than Moore's Law. While it cost $3 billion to map the first human genome in 2003, by 2019 it was less than $1,000 — and within a decade or less, the price could be less than $100.
  • While biological research was long the product of trial and error, advances in machine learning have enabled scientists to produce quicker and more directed insights from the vast amount of genetic data these new tools have produced. Biology research labs that depended on human labor are increasingly being augmented by robotic automation and sensors, speeding the pace of R&D.
  • As a result, biology, which has long been artisanal, is fast becoming industrial, and what can be done in the labs is migrating into the wider world of business. "These are engineerable challenges," says Peter Barrett, a co-founder of the VC firm Playground Global.

The catch: Because biology is far more regulated than the field of artificial intelligence, the speed of the bio revolution will depend not just on science, but on public attitudes. The MGI report estimates 70% of the total impact could hinge on consumer, societal, and regulatory acceptance.

  • Commercialization also presents a possible hurdle — the advanced biofuels pushed in the mid to late-2000s were never able to dislodge oil, despite being greener.
  • Because it is self-replicating, biology is inherently difficult to control, and any mistakes could have long-lasting implications for the environment and even the human body.
  • As gene editing and DNA synthesis tools become cheaper and easier to use, more and more people will be able to manipulate the code of life. That carries serious security risks, as I wrote recently for Axios.

The bottom line: AI gets much of the attention, but advances in biotechnology are poised to be just as momentous. Put those two fields together and they will transform the world.

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