By Juan Enriquez
If you are a business executive today dealing with teetering financial markets and a weak economy, it’s doubtful you are thinking much about genomic literacy. But how well you, your company, and your industry understand this new, still esoteric language may have much to do with your company’s long-term survival and prosperity.
Biology is likely to become the greatest single driver of the global economy. The coming changes are not so much a second industrial or green revolution but the dawn of the organic age — organic in the sense that what things we make and how we make them will be tied to understanding and reading life and to programming life for specific purposes. We do this now with food and textiles. But the use of this powerful language/programming is spreading fast and far. In the future, wealth creation could be closely tied to life sciences, much as it is currently tied to digits.
If you think this sounds farfetched, ask someone who lived in the early 1970s whether people thought India, Ireland, Korea, Silicon Valley, or Taiwan would be centers of technology and new wealth. A few bold digital geeks argued computers would revolutionize not just how information is gathered and disseminated, but almost every business on the planet and more than a few countries. Over the past few decades, most new jobs, wealth, and growth were created in the knowledge and digital realm. And while venture capital represented only about 0.2 % of U.S. GDP, the companies it created generated about 17% of economic activity. The Internet changed virtually every industry. Yet as far-reaching as the digital revolution was, the ability to code life will likely reach even further.
GOING BEYOND THE PHARMA INDUSTRY
There are many competitors in this new race. What started out as an obscure subspecialty primarily of interest to the pharmaceuticals industry has now spread to agriculture, chemicals, biodefense, and energy. Life sciences are a key component of many national development plans. Brazil leads the world in biofuels and preventing citrus diseases, thanks to R&D programs launched decades ago. Korea, despite recent scandals, continues investing in cloning and tissue engineering. Japan leads in fermentation technologies and is growing plastic car parts from bacteria and plants. Singapore considers life sciences a vital part of its development strategy and invests hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in each of its graduate students. China is building a genome city, while the United Arab Emirates attempts to use scale and petrodollars to leapfrog everyone. For now, the United States remains, by far, the leader in R&D and new venture creation.
UNLOCKING THE GENOME
What’s driving all this? In the mid-20th century, we discovered that all life is coded in four base pairs (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine). Then we learned how this simple code translates into amino acids and finally builds the hundreds of thousands of proteins that generate life and guide its operations.
Biotechnology first allowed us to slightly modify a few life forms to produce medicines, new seeds, and a few chemicals. Then, in just over a decade, the development of rapid sequencing of a virus, bacteria, plant, fly, and, eventually, human has unlocked the entire gene code, or genome, of living things. Now, during the past year, at least three discoveries have fundamentally altered how we think of the code of life and what we can achieve using it. First, two labs, one in Japan and one in the United States, showed how adult cells can become pluripotent. That means human skin cells can be shocked to reboot from scratch. They forget what they are specialized to do and go back to their original state, just after conception. This is an important discovery because all complex organisms start out as undifferentiated, pluripotent cells. And each of our cells, with the exception of some blood cells, contains our entire genome. So, in theory, each of our cells can produce all of our body parts.
A second major paper showed that we can reprogram cells. A few months ago, Synthetic Genomics and the Venter Institute took a cell, inserted long strands of DNA, and booted up a cell as a different species. This is important because half the biomass on Earth is made up of microscopic organisms. And it is these small, single-celled (or few-celled) creatures that have created much of our environment; they help plants grow and humans digest, and they turn plants into oil and gas.
Finally, we are learning to write the code from scratch. In January 2008, the same group published the world’s largest organic molecule. Consider it a life software package. By stringing together very long strands of DNA, companies will be able to program cells to do specific things. In fact, high school and college students are already beginning to do this using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s open-source BioBricks. If assuming that cells become programmable hardware, they will become micro-machines that make myriad organic products including textiles, chemicals, medicines, and fuels. By December 2008, we were able to assemble an entire cell software package in a day instead of years.
Taken together, these three discoveries, plus the increasing availability of standardized cheap cellular components, suggest that we will be able to write out a life code, which will in turn allow us to program a cell to execute a desired function. And this function is rapidly scalable since gene code builds its own hardware.
LIFE SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY INVESTMENTS TO INCREASE
As we begin to read, reproduce, and program life, we will change many industries, including agriculture, biotechnology, chemicals, defense, energy, insurance, IT, leather, medicine, real estate, pharmaceuticals, and textiles. About 70% of the grain we consume in the United States and Canada already is genetically modified. Some of our cars, clothes, corn, food, gasoline, IT, leathers, medicines, and plastics are produced organically using life science technologies. Companies as diverse as Aetna, BP, GE, Google, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, L’Oréal, Monsanto, Nestlé, Novartis, and P&G are investing heavily in the application of life science technologies.
Beyond pharma, biotech, and agriculture, the greatest initial impact of life sciences will likely be in energy. After all, a leaf is simply a solar panel that powers a plant. Oil and gas are rotted plant and bacterial tissues—in essence, sunlight concentrated in organic matter. Using genetic modifications, we will be able to produce gasoline directly from plants or bacteria. Similar techniques will allow us to go directly from plants to tertiary petrochemicals that produce dyes, fine chemicals, paints, plastics, polyesters, and rubber.
DuPont already is growing your next breathable, water-repellent jogging suit using bacteria. Thanks to a Cargill–Dow joint venture, your disposable cup or lunchtime salad container may already be a biodegradable plastic grown from plants. Toyota Motor is making some of its car parts using life sciences and is launching medical, foodstuff, and chemical divisions. These are just first steps.
Just as the ability to code digits created an unprecedented burst of wealth as well as a large-scale restructuring of industries and the rapid rise of some very poor countries, life sciences will likely produce a restructuring of industry. It will drive mergers and acquisitions such as GE’s purchase of Amersham, a British pharmaceutical. DuPont’s earnings increasingly are driven by a seed company, Pioneer. And the trend is becoming global: Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo bought control of India’s Ranbaxy. The next eBay, Google, Intel, and Microsoft will be a company that uses life forms to create new products.
The life code is a lever and perhaps the most powerful instrument human beings have ever used. It will make the Industrial Revolution seem simple, even quaint. It will become the world’s dominant language, and all of us will have to be literate to thrive.
About the Author
Juan Enriquez is a Managing Director of Excel Medical Ventures. He previously served as founding director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School and is the author of As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth.