According to Juan Enriquez, managing director of Excel Venture Management, we are in the midst of a life sciences revolution. Much like the digital revolution of the past thirty years, it has the potential to upend industries like pharma, food, textiles, IT and energy.
At the forefront of this revolution is our growing understanding of genetics and ability to write stretches of genetic information, allowing researchers to reprogram cells to perform new and valuable functions. Could bacteria be reprogrammed to provide clean energy? Or even medicine?
On November 4th and 5th, Mr. Enriquez will discuss what’s possible during two lectures hosted by the Silverstein Lecture Series at Northwestern University’s Center for Genetic Medicine. We asked for a preview.
You refer to genetic information as “life code.” What do you mean by that?
Throughout our history, we’ve learned to read and write in an alphabetic, or 26-letter code. Then we collapsed every word written and spoken, as well as music, photos, video, and film into a two letter alphabet— computer code (1s and 0s). Now, we are learning how life— bacteria, plants, animals, and humans —is coded in proteins and DNA. For years, we’ve been breeding bigger tomatoes and transforming wolves into dogs. But now, working on a molecular level, we are building cells that become factories to create energy, chemicals, and medicines. Recently we also reprogrammed a cell of one species to become another species.
So, by “writing life code,” researchers can develop genetic sequences to customize the function of living cells. Can you give me some examples of what scientists are working on?
The Food-Feed-Fiber system is changing fundamentally. Crops used for animal feed—grains and soybeans—have been genetically engineered to produce several cycles of crops per year, and to be drought-resistant. Tomatoes and broccoli are being developed with enhanced cancer-fighting properties. And Dupont, instead of using chemicals derived from petroleum, is using genetically engineered bacteria to produce stain-proof or breathable fabrics.
Engineered goats and cows now produce medicines, like insulin, in their milk. This allows therapeutics to be produced in larger quantities and at lower costs. Some herders will continue to provide goat cheese, others will shepherd million-dollar goats.
Energy is also changing rapidly. ExxonMobil is working with biotech group Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to produce biofuels from photosynthetic algae, which can be grown quickly and abundantly on very poor soil.
What are some of the economic implications of these new technologies?
New technologies often create huge economic earthquakes. For example, we saw a massive change in who was rich and who was poor with the industrial revolution, and again with the digital revolution. Some countries, like Singapore, India, Malaysia, and Korea, suddenly became far more relevant, while others faced collapse.
Like Darwin said, we must be able to adapt and adopt. We must be able to cope and to change.
Our ability to read and write in ones and zeroes (computer code) led to personal computers, the internet, the web, digital cameras and TVs, the iPhone, and most of the wealth generated over the last thirty years. Being able to read and write in life code will also change the world. In fact, I think it will be the biggest single driver of the economy going forward.
How well-positioned is the U.S. entering into the life sciences revolution?
The U.S. has an extraordinary research infrastructure, good research funding, many start-up companies and enough venture capital.
But there are growing regulatory hurdles, as well as a great deal of litigiousness. This makes it ever more difficult to bring new companies into the U.S. market. A further fundamental problem is our deteriorating public science education. There must be a better focus on grammar school and high school basics, given that most of the lucrative future jobs will occur in robotics, finance, nanotech, neurocognitive start ups, and, especially, life sciences.
Come learn more at the Center for Genetic Medicine’s Silverstein Lecture Series, November 4th at 7:00 pm in Evanston's McCormic Tribune Center, and November 5th at 7:00 pm in Chicago's Lurie Medical Research Center. Both events are free and open to the public.