Scientists are using the biological systems found in living organisms — and even living organisms themselves — to make new technological advances. In fact, humans have been using various forms of biotechnology to alter the natural world for thousands of years. However, new scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs have vastly accelerated the industry and are leading to radical transformations in medicine, agriculture, and the environment.
Raymond McCauley is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur working at the edges of this biotech revolution. He is Chair of Biology at Singularity University, a Principal at Exponential Biosciences, and a member of Boma’s biotechnology Brain Trust. For his work, he explores the possibilities of incorporating technological advances into genetics, medicinal, and agricultural sectors.
Last week, he met with our Boma France team for a Club Event exploring ongoing trends in biotechnology and their ramifications across various industries.
At the event, McCauley noted that, despite the fact that we are still witnessing the earliest moments of the biotech revolution, many of the most monumental shifts have already happened. In medicine, for example, he notes that we are still “at the start of the revolution in the medical arts, one that is going to go for at least the next 10 or 20 years. But we're already using genomic tools to read and write DNA, and we're treating diseases less like some poorly organized set of symptoms that we grope for in the dark.”
In short, we are starting to see the human system as a whole and, extending from this, the root causes of disruption. As such, instead of treating symptoms, McCauley notes that we are beginning to fix problems at their source. “We can go in and correct [issues] directly and even reprogram what's going on,” he said.
To highlight a specific application, McCauley turned to Car T-cell therapy, which reprograms the immune system to combat different forms of cancer. This specific application of biotechnology is already saving lives, and McCauley argues that, if we do things right, it will quickly be used for the benefit of all humanity. “The first Car-T technology approved for use in the US costs about a half a million dollars. This is because the treatment has to be personalized and essentially made from the cells of the individual that's being treated. But a little farther down the road, we will likely have universal donors from which we can collect a library of these cells,” he said.
As a result, we'll be able to use these treatments without having to recreate it for each individual patient, which will dramatically reduce costs and allow for widespread use.
However, the largest shift isn’t in health or medicine. “The biggest thing happening today,” McCauley asserts, “is cellular agriculture. It’s the idea that we can grow meat outside of an animal. And with this, we can have all the advantages of having meat without killing the animal and without having the environmental cost,” he said.
According to data produced the Pacific Institute and National Geographic, a pound of chicken takes 468 gallons of water to produce, a gallon of cow’s milk 880 gallons, and a pound of beef 1,800 gallons. All-in-all, animal agriculture is responsible for 20 to 33 percent of all fresh water consumption in the world. By transitioning to lab-grown forms of meat, we could save vast amounts of water and still maintain our protein and other nutrient intakes.
Yet, McCauley was careful to note that we must proceed with care and that regulators must be quick to catch up. “I know this sounds like a utopia, but there's some dark sides, and I don't want to minimize the fact that we have huge possibilities for mistakes,” he said. By reprogramming life and recreating our world, we are opening up formidable opportunities to solve global problems and improve human health and life quality; however, he noted that there is also an enormous possibility that “we will widen the economic gap between the richest and poorest people and go in a very bad direction.”
Interested in learning more? See A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by CRISPR cocreator, Jennifer A. Doudna, and biochemist Samuel H. Sternberg. Or you can attend one of our upcoming events or join us for our next Boma Club.