(Re)Programming Life

Kai Goerlich

We live in the Anthropocene era; human activity is very clearly the foremost impact on Earth. Today we require the resources of 1.6 Earths to survive, and the most moderate estimates suggest that, if current trends continue, we’ll need the equivalent of two Earths to support us.

At the same time, we are perfecting the ability to alter our ecosystems at the most fundamental level – DNA and RNA – that could theoretically reverse some of the damage we’ve done, or at least stem the continuing loss of biodiversity and habitat. Both are seen as posing great risk for our future, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report. Of course, our quickly advancing genomic capabilities come with some difficult ethical questions.

However, gene editing will also introduce new possibilities for companies to create new lines of revenue and protect existing ones by making it possible to protect biodiversity, more safely manage ecosystem loss, and sustain agricultural production. A recent article in Nature points out that genome editing, for example, “allows much smaller changes to be made to DNA compared with conventional genetic engineering,” which might prove more palatable to the public and regulators.

The DNA revolution

The discovery in 1958 by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin of DNA as the primary building block of genetics had a major impact on how we study and interact with the world around us. The focus shifted from the analysis of plant and animal anatomy and exploring nature to the examination of life at the micro level. Over the following decades, humans have developed a comprehensive understanding of molecular biology.

Once the roles of DNA and RNA became clear – DNA stores the information of life and RNA translates the code and regulates the translation – it was only a matter of time before we figured out how to take on the role of programmers as well. When Kary Mullis discovered a way to relatively quickly synthesize DNA with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology (also called molecular photocopying) in 1983, the race was on.

The Human Genome Project sequenced the first full human genome in 2003. At that time, it took the collaboration of 20 universities working for 13 years and spending roughly $3 billion to do it. Thanks to high-throughput computing and massively parallel sequencing technologies (NG), sequencing speed has more than doubled every two years and costs have continued to drop (the field is advancing faster than Moore’s Law). Last September, Veritas Genetics announced $1,000 full-genome sequencing, including interpretation, for participants in the Personal Genome Project, and it’s just a matter of time before individuals can get their genomes sequenced for $100 or less.

“What we observe is a turning point in life sciences and medicine. Today our ability to generate massive amounts of biological data of any species and individual is ahead of our capabilities to interpret this vast amount of information. Working as a researcher, or even as a clinician, can feel like listening to all symphonies from Haydn to Shostakovich in parallel and trying to make sense out of it. Creating standards to annotate and exchange the data, finding the right algorithms and analytics to turn those curated data into insights will be a major challenge in the near future,” says Dr. Péter Adorján, principal expert, Precision Medicine at SAP.

Engineering life

Sequencing genomes is one thing, editing genes in living organisms is a different thing altogether. For the past 15 years, we have possessed techniques to edit human DNA by using a disabled virus (known as a viral vector) to deliver new genetic data to a cell. However, the introduction of foreign genomic materials into cells is an imprecise process and comes with a number of logistical drawbacks.

Then along came CRISPR/Cas9. Discovered in 2005, CRISPR/Cas9 is a naturally occurring immune system found in a wide range of bacteria. In a biological version of “cut-and-paste” CRISPR is able to snip out a short sequence of an invading virus’ DNA and, when invaded again, use this sequence to bind to the virus DNA and cut it at a specific part of the sequence. Less than a decade after its discovery, scientists figured out how to harness CRISPR/Cas9 for genome editing.

The approach is currently being tested for treating disease and could soon be used to treat a wide range of disorders. Once CRISPR is fully tested, it could be used to remove faulty genomes in embryos, basically eradicating those genomes from the gene pool. Theoretically, this form of gene editing should improve the safety of gene modifications; changes could be better planned, executed, and reviewed.

“The accuracy of the CRISPR method is simply stunning. The resulting medicine will improve outcomes and reduce side effects for many gene-based healthcare problems,” says Dr. Adorján. “If it holds its promises, it will probably change medicine within 10 years more than what we have observed in the last 50 years. But the methodology will raise fundamental ethical issues of how we cope with genetic optimizations of embryos or modifying germline cells, which would impact not only the individual but all subsequent generations as well.”

The impact on society and business could be profound and broad. In healthcare, gene editing is already showing progress in treating diseases such as curing chronic infection with hepatitis B and addressing the shortage of organs for transplants, for example. A group of scientists in San Diego used gene editing to create a population of mosquitoes resistant to spreading malaria. As an article in Chemistry World stated: gene editing is now “more than just a science – it’s big business too.” The genome editing market is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2019, according to Markets and Markets. DuPont is already growing in greenhouses corn and wheat plants edited with CRISPR in an effort to make drought-resistant corn and improve wheat yields. The company’s vice president for agricultural biotechnology has predicted that gene editing will introduce a new wave of products and profits. Novartis is working with gene-editing startups on using CRISPR for engineering immune cells and blood stem cells and as a research tool for drug discovery.

Such advances are likely decades off, but they raise important ethical questions that we will have to answer, since such editing could impact not only the host organism, but the larger ecosystem, for better or for worse. For example, how might a genetically edited mosquito population impact the rest of the ecosystem? While these new tools will provide us with novel ways of managing our impact on the world around us – say, solving world hunger or reversing climate change – and create new business opportunities, there are risks.

Beyond gene hacking

The future of digital biology will not play out only at the molecular level, though. It will advance in the context of the larger world. Because ecological systems are complex, fragile networks, even the smallest changes can have a dramatic impact. That means the gene editing alone will not be enough to better deal with humanity’s impact on the world.

But genomics technology isn’t advancing in isolation.

As we’ve pointed out in previous Digital Futures posts, our world will be increasingly populated with sensors and the advanced computing power to collect and analyze the data they produce. By linking our growing wealth of biological data with rapidly advancing sensor-facilitated data, research organizations and companies could develop a more complete understanding of our environment, from rainforests to oceans and agricultural systems, at the macro level as well.

Researchers are already developing chip-scale sensors that can placed unobtrusively in the environment to measure molecular changes that could be used for such purposes as real-time monitoring of environmental pollutants, detecting toxic leaks in an industrial plant, or detecting disease by analyzing a patient’s breath. The data from such advanced sensors could also enable researchers and organizations to model and measure the impact of changes at the molecular level on larger ecosystems, and vice versa, with applications for everything from environmental sustainability to biomedicine. That intelligence will put scientists and businesses in a much better position to manage humanity’s impact on the Earth and the economy, our own health, and even help to deal with ethical questions about the impact of gene editing.

Businesses in healthcare and those with high ecological footprints, like agriculture, fishing, wood, mining, and oil & gas, could use modern sensor and genome technology to improve their risk assessment, act more sustainably, and potentially find new business ideas as well.

In order to get to that point, we’ll need to take three key steps. First, we must digitize our existing and growing understanding of life on Earth – all the existing biological, paleontological, and geological collections we’ve gathered over the centuries  in order to make them more easily accessible. Then, using the power of sensors and analytics, we can begin to scan the environment to gather critical data on our ecosystems and the impact we have on them. Finally, using gene sequencing, we can begin to explore the changes we might make by editing things at the molecular level and simulate the outcomes on a macro scale.

A designer future?

Where will these advances take us? There are a number of possible scenarios.

  1. Limited, regulated usage: We might see a future where we would simply fix molecular flaws and allow gene editing in only very specific contexts in the healthcare industry. While technology for fast and effective DNA sequencing and editing would continue to advance, the applications would be available to a niche of professionals only. We might enable gene editing to create certain designer plants to cope with climate change, for example, but that application would be highly regulated.
  1. A hybrid approach: Broader acceptance of complex gene editing would allow us to more significantly alter the natural world, editing known life forms and perhaps designing new ones. Gene editing would still be preserved for professionals. Healthcare would embrace a hybrid approach of classical medicine and gene editing. Mankind would begin to experiment with ecosystem engineering based on advanced insight and study, generating ethical controversy and long-term disputes. Some regulations would emerge in sensitive areas.
  1. Wide acceptance: In a world where IT and technology are entirely democratized and gene editing is widely accepted, we could wake up to a second creation. In this scenario, gene editing would be allowed with little restriction, with toolkits available to consumers and professionals. The healthcare industry would apply gene editing on a grand scale, and designer plants and animals would become commonplace. But, thanks to an increasingly advanced understanding of how nature operates on a macro and micro level, we could better understand and manage the consequences.

Download the executive brief Gene Editing: Big Science, Big Business.


To learn more about how exponential technology will affect business and life, see Digital Futures in the Digitalist Magazine.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network. His specialties include competitive intelligence, market intelligence, corporate foresight, trends, futuring, and ideation. Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.