Rapid advances in biotechnological frontiers, such as genetic modification, tissue engineering, and microbiome profiling, are changing the speed, cost and scope of development, enabling new processes and unlocking new information in biological systems.
Biotech is already part of our everyday lives. It is used for a wide variety of purposes, from designing gene therapies, developing novel treatments for disease, and improving crop resilience and yields, to enhancing remediation strategies, producing biofuels and bioplastics, and ‘clean’ meat.
The rise of Industry 4.01 will have a huge impact on the expanding capabilities of biotechnology, too. But with each application of biotech, ethical dilemmas as well as opportunities arise.
For instance, agricultural biotech could increase food security and improve nutritional outcomes, but it could also negatively affect smallholder farmers with limited access to hybrid seeds, and even reduce crop resilience due to lower genetic diversity.
Further, the revolutionary genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR systems rose to prominence in 2012 and has since opened previously intractable opportunities to remove disease-causing genes and enhance beneficial traits in all types of living organisms, including humans. In 2015, scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genome of human embryos for the first time. In the same year, the researchers behind the development of CRISPR systems called for a moratorium on using the tool in human embryos - which was not adhered to by the global scientific community. Such a powerful tool raises important ethical questions of if, when, and how gene editing is appropriate.
Can the long-term implications and risks of biotech be effectively addressed, so that sustainability benefits, such as delivering nutrition and medicines, can be maximised? It is an urgent question: a confluence of trends, including high and volatile commodity prices, resource scarcity, climate change, changing healthcare and emerging societal norms are increasing the impetus for exploring new and more sustainable forms of biotechnology.
- 1. the ongoing trend towards automation and data exchange, including technologies such as the Internet of Things
Biotech is a burgeoning field with many opportunities and challenges emerging continuously. Below are examples of predominating fields and trajectories developing now:
- Gene-editing tools like CRISPR systems have opened up levels of accuracy in DNA modification never before seen in any previous generations of gene editing methods, enabling an unprecedented level of precision in the alteration of DNA. Advances and adaptations to the CRISPR system give rise to an ever expanding repertoire of high efficacy editing capabilities, including reducing susceptibility to HIV infection in the world’s first genetically-edited children, born in 2018.
- CRISPR systems have become so easy and inexpensive to use that a new world of DNA manipulation has opened up to amateurs who can now begin to experiment with them as well1.
- The debate surrounding genetically modified organisms is shifting away from polarised groups being either fundamentally opposed to or in favour of GM, towards a precautionary approach where actors such as scientists and NGOs are debating the benefits and risks of biotech and emphasising the need for rigorous and consistent regulation.
- Companies in the US are editing the genes of tomato plants to bear twice as many fruit, of mushrooms to resist visible bruising, and of soybeans to comprise fewer unhealthy fats.2
- Biotech companies like 23andMe are bringing genomic sequencing to the masses by offering low cost DNA sequencing to the public.
- 1. Roth (2019) A Guide to DIYbio
- 2. National Geographic (2018) Why gene editing is the new food revolution.
- Stem cells are being used to engineer human tissue from muscles to organs to skin.
- In 2011 the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm successfully transplanted a diaphragm and has since expanded into all manner of engineered tissue with its Research Division of Biomaterials.
- Companies like Will’s Vegan Shoes are disrupting consumer leather markets by using ‘vegan leather’ engineered from cereal crops.
- ‘Clean’ meat, also known as ‘cell-based’ or ‘cultured’ meat, is a nascent but rapidly expanding field of research and development in the food industry, with brands such as Finless Foods synthesising tuna meat from fish stem cells.
- Scientists are just beginning to understand how the living colony of trillions of bacteria in and on our bodies affect us, providing alternative opportunities to diagnose and treat many illnesses and encourage health - from fecal transplant stomach disease cures to probiotics targeting anxiety and depression.
- Advances in gene marking and analysis have enabled us to characterise and understand soil and root microbiomes in order to predict and develop healthier and more productive agricultural ecosystems.
- Understanding of microbial cultures is providing new opportunities for bioremediation - the process of using microorganisms to degrade unwanted pollutants in soils and water - which is significantly less environmentally and economically costly than traditional industrial remediation.
- Biotechnology has significant commercial potential in producing sources for biofuels and other bioenergy applications. According to the EIA, bioenergy accounts for roughly 9% of the world total primary energy supply1
- Biofuels hold particular value in the transition to a low-to-zero carbon transport sector as they can be used in road vehicles, shipping and aviation. However, the different generations of biofuels come with their own benefits and pitfalls. First-generation biofuels, generated from farmed crops, raise issues around competition for land, food security and ecosystem health when monocultures are prevalent. Second-generation biofuels are made from non-food crops or inedible components of food crops, minimising some of the food security challenges but requiring further processing and typically yielding less fuel than first-gen. Third-gen and fourth-gen biofuels, produced from algae or chemical synthesis, respectively, avoid land competition and demand fewer inputs, making fuel production a much more efficient process. But these latter generations are still under development and are not yet ready to be rolled-out at commercial scale.
- Despite the land use challenges bioenergy from crops pose, bioenergy combined with carbon capture and storage (abbreviated as ‘BECCS’) was the primary strategy included in the IPCCs 5th Assessment Report to lower global carbon emissions and minimise the risk of exceeding more than 2°C global heating.2
The evolution and, indeed, revolution of biotech currently underway is drastically disrupting healthcare, agriculture, consumer markets, while also forcing communities to grapple with existential definitions of morality and humanity. For the sake of brevity, only some of the many implications this revolution might bring to bear are outlined below.
Health and Nutrition
- The wealth of genetic information that is now available through biotech advances could lead to more targeted and more effective therapies against disease. Equally, it could lead to medical discrimination: for instance, insurance may be raised for those at higher risk for developing certain diseases, and treatments may be refused based on an individual’s genetic makeup and average results from clinical trials. Beyond medical conditions, a person’s genetic make-up could serve as arsenal for discrimination in all of its forms. For example, 122 Shade of Gray claims to be able to determine sexual orientation based on an individual’s genetics (despite widespread outrage, the app is still available to buy).
- Beyond genetic profiling, editing genetic ‘faults’ from human embryos is feasible but it comes with a price tag that makes it accessible only to the wealthy at present. Further, while genetic tools like CRISPR have (so far) been used to reduce the risk of disease, the line between ‘disease’ and ‘healthy’ may become blurred as biotech frontiers continue to expand and evolve.
- While genetically modifying crops and livestock could have positive impacts on the global food system and stand to benefit the least food secure nations, the divisive subject may force countries to compromise their values. For example, the EU has strict regulations surrounding the consumption of GM products, but with the UK set to leave the EU on the 12th December, Britain could see an influx of GM products in their supermarkets.
- The gene revolution will unfold alongside set of questions including who its benefactors will be and how that will be decided.
- Biotech solutions for satisfying world food demand – such as micronutrient fertilisers, biofortification of staples and genetically-modified drought and pest-resistant crops – may become more prominent in the long term, especially through increased investment. However, the effectiveness of these techniques will remain strongly dependent on healthy soils and ecosystems. So-called ‘technofixes’ that appear to offer a simple solutions to problems often have unintended consequences which make the problems worse in the long term, which could drive nations to enact strict regulation forbidding citizen science and widespread application of genetically modified crops.
- For example, the recent development of engineered yeast to brew the antimalarial artemisinin unintentionally displaced several hundred thousand smallholder farmers from the world market for artemisia, who now face impoverishment. Plans to produce vanilla extract using a similar process may have the same effect on smallholder growers of vanilla. Both direct and indirect impacts of synthetic replacements must therefore be carefully considered before they are introduced into existing markets.
- While bioenergy is a low-carbon, renewable alternative to fossil fuels, the technology remains a highly contentious topic. Because biofuels can easily replace fossil fuels, their widespread use could delay a systemic shift in decarbonising transport (resulting in continued use of traditional combustion engines rather than moving to electric). BECCS, too, could perpetuate the carbon-intensive economy - enabling continued use of fossil fuels while offsetting their emissions.
- These implications arise from the way current research in bioenergy has been directed. Bioenergy is still considered a complementary, rather than alternative, technology to fossil fuels.1
Science, Business, and Regulation
- Hyperconnectivity enabled by the internet means that advancement in biotech is shared and iterated at a much faster pace and with all of humanity engaged in real time. For businesses, this means incredible opportunities to commercialize. For regulatory bodies, this means new questions of who gets to experiment, apply, and benefit from genetic technologies. As part of the DIYbio movement, scientific methods, and innovations might increasingly be developed by new actors, such as citizen scientists who do not hold the same protocols and legal standards as formal scientific institutions do. Due to these developments, policy regulation of new technologies and actors will be increasingly difficult and yet more important to promote innovation while tackling concerns of bioterrorism, safety and ethics. Global agreement and oversight for research and applications of genetic technology will become ever more important. International moratoriums like that of human embryonic gene editing will be honoured by some nations, others not, further increasing the need for international cooperation.
- 1. For example, bioethanol is commonly blended with petrol and biodiesel with diesel to lower the carbon intensity of the fuels - not to replace them.