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As technological innovation battles against geopolitical headwinds, C-suite leaders around the world are grappling with unprecedented challenges while trying not to overlook the extraordinary opportunities they bring. Amid the clamor of competing strategies and solutions, we advise paying close attention to the inexorable rise of the bioeconomy.

Bio-based breakthroughs could address humanity’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change, sustainability, and food and water security. Additionally, biologics offer the possibility of powerful diagnostics and curative drugs. Pioneering work underpinning the growth of the bioeconomy spans the fields of synthetic biology, biotechnology, bioengineering and bio-innovation. Whichever identifier the industry ultimately aligns with, the exciting intersection of biology, engineering and advanced computing is causing a revolution – and it’s already upon us.

“Bio-based breakthroughs could address humanity’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change, sustainability, and food and water security.”

Existing industries will be entirely replaced by new ones. Unexpected new partnerships will emerge. Global supply chains will be completely reconfigured. More of these themes in a moment; for now, let’s remember the tremendous power of this new area of ​​innovation. Biology, as a scientific discipline, is concerned with the very essence of life. A small seed contains all the biological information needed to harvest water and nutrients from the soil, CO2 from the atmosphere and energy from the sun, eventually producing a fully mature tree.

For centuries, humans have attempted to harness the power of biology. Long before the discovery of DNA, scientist and mathematician Gregor Mendel (1822‒84) successfully selected peas based on their observable characteristics. Since its discovery in 1928, penicillin, a naturally occurring fungus, has become an effective treatment for the bacterial infections that have claimed the lives of so many people.

However, the past few decades have seen a rapid acceleration in our understanding of biology and our corresponding ability to design and exploit this new technology to address a wide range of challenges and opportunities. From the discovery of DNA and genetics, we have developed an in-depth knowledge of the behavior of cells and organisms.

The next step in bioengineering

The biological behaviors we observe and seek to exploit operate across cells, tissues, organs, and even entire organisms. To effectively decode and manipulate biology at this level, precise measurements and observations are imperative. The emergence of sophisticated measurement techniques, such as single cell sequencing, spatial transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics is transforming our biological engineering capabilities.

Huge datasets of immense complexity, previously unusable due to the limitations of human labor, are being unlocked by advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), revealing previously hidden information. Google’s AlphaFold 2 technology, for example, has the ability to predict the 3D structure of a protein directly from its amino acid sequence. Structure is fundamental to understanding the mechanistic function of a protein, so this is a technological leap that will greatly facilitate and accelerate research.

Why is this important? The way a protein folds is based on its sequence. The function of a protein is directly related to its folding, with the dynamics of function ranging from completely inactive, to varying shades of activity, to highly active. Understanding the sequence-based activity and folding of proteins will enable the engineering of proteins that will be super functional for medical purposes (such as protein deficiency diseases) or in industrial biotechnology where processes depend on enzymatic activity.

These new AI tools are generating new capabilities to create improved medicines and bio-based manufacturing systems from renewable natural sources. Benefits could include more active drugs at reduced dosages, which would be particularly beneficial for therapies with severe side effects. The benefits of bio-based manufacturing include reduced bioprocess costs as a direct effect of enhanced enzymes deployed in the process.

The pivot to the bioeconomy is already underway. Among the incredible current activity, below is a selection of cross-industry examples that harness the power of biology.

perfect day is in the business of cow’s milk. Without cows. The company has discovered how to modify a naturally occurring mushroom that contains the genetic machinery needed to produce beta-lactoglobulin (a type of whey protein) on a large scale. It did so not just because it could, but in response to growing consumer demand. Less land, less water, less energy, less waste, less methane. Technologies like this, deployed at scale, can help address climate change, sustainability and food security.

“LanzaTech uses carbon emissions to feed trillions of carbon-hungry microbes that turn pollution into valuable raw materials.”

LanzaTech uses carbon emissions to feed trillions of carbon-hungry microbes that turn pollution into valuable raw materials. The company has partnered with Unilever in the manufacture of laundry detergent from CO2 emissions from a Chinese steel mill.

Summit and CRISPR therapeutics are tackling sickle cell disease, a debilitating inherited blood disease that affects millions of people worldwide, primarily people of African descent. Conventional management of the disease requires frequent blood transfusions. Today, new treatments are extremely promising25 in first clinical use. By using gene editing techniques to enable the patient’s own cells to produce fetal hemoglobin, the treatment allows patients to remain transfusion independent for up to 26 months.

As part of the trend towards the production of bio-sourced materials using local raw materials, Solugen uses synthetic biological tools to create chemicals for water treatment and molecules to harden cement. Sugar replaces fossil fuels but, rather than fermentation, which converts half the sugar into CO2, engineers use synthetic enzymes. This dramatically increases efficiency and reduces costs, leaving a zero carbon footprint.

Massive data storage and computation

The convergence of biology, engineering and advanced computing is a key driver of much of this bio-based innovation and technological progress. In one example, Technology CATALOG attempts to build the world’s first DNA-based platform for large-scale digital data storage and computation. In the newly digitized world, mankind has an unlimited appetite for data storage. Conventional data storage using optical or magnetic media lacks the longevity, data density and cost effectiveness to meet global demand, while data centers can consume as much energy as a city. A milestone in this initiative to address the data sustainability challenge came in July 2019 when CATALOG’s “terabit machine” encoded the entire English language of Wikipedia into DNA.

The cell and gene therapy space is one of the most exciting and transformative fields in medicine. The highly sophisticated manufacturing process is currently hampered by labor-intensive manual procedures that require constant monitoring. This, in turn, results in the exorbitant costs of the therapies: around $500,000 or more per dose. One of the technologies Cambridge has created in response to this problem is a fully automated online contamination detection system. Once a development partner is in place, this scalable technology can have a significant impact on the market, delivering significant time and cost savings and improving patient outcomes.

The potential of these “living drugs” is, without a doubt, impressive. We are developing the knowledge and ability to engineer cells to recognize and respond to specific diseases. These will patrol the body in a latent state, only initiating a pre-programmed action when they sense certain triggers.

Another possibility on the horizon is the application of genetic logic gate circuits. A use case for this is that a culture could be designed to sense and assess its own environment and then use that information to optimize its own rate of growth. We can see a future where we design cells from the ground up, taking cell therapies to the next level. Another exciting possibility is to write and store the genetic code in the genome, allowing disease monitoring and, in microbial systems, environmental conditions.

“A culture could be designed to sense and assess its own environment and then use that information to optimize its own rate of growth.”

There is still an unquantifiable amount of work to be done and countless hours of debate around ethical and moral issues as business and society adjust to this new world. As advocates of the emerging bioeconomy, however, we strongly believe that humanity has much to gain from embracing the biorevolution.

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