Biology-based innovations are estimated to be about to generate $4 trillion in economic impact over the next few decades. Image: Girl with red hat/Unsplash
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- Biotechnology holds great potential beyond the creation of vaccines, and could be used for food, energy and clothing materials on a large scale.
- Its potential cannot be reached without global collaboration, including at a political level.
- Regulation is desperately required to both allow for and speed up scientific progress in this area.
Seven of the last ten Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been awarded to advances in biochemistry: the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms.
Our understanding of genomics, molecular motors and the editing of genes, together with advances in nanotechnology and AI are at an all-time high. Add to this the rapidly falling costs of the same technology and you have a potent combination.
This combination is about to be both transformative and highly disruptive across many parts of our lives. Just like the ascent of organic chemistry at the turn of the 19th century, our increased focused on proteins is now creating the biorevolution.
We felt just how much the biorevolution has advanced during the pandemic; first, through the speed with which we understood how the virus was disrupting our societies, and then through witnessing vaccine development at unprecedented degrees of speed and efficacy.
Our hope of defeating COVID-19 would have been drastically reduced without the existence of major advances in biological sciences.”
Across the globe, millions of people have now benefited from research and vaccination campaigns, allowing us to make important steps in overcoming this terrible pandemic. Undoubtedly, we owe this to scientists to a substantial degree. They have used mRNA vaccines – also called gene vaccines – to help cells form a spike protein similar to the one that exists on the surface of COVID-19 pathogens.
The technology available has led scientists to be able to create safe and effective vaccines that will eventually allow us to resume our normal lives – or at least some new rendition of it.
Bluntly put, our hope of defeating COVID-19 would have been drastically reduced without the existence of these advances in biological sciences. The development of COVID-19 vaccines is an example of biological transformation that has greatly impacted the world and our lives, but mRNA vaccines and gene sequencing are only the tip of the iceberg for the biorevolution.
Beyond being COVID-19's rescue parachute
The biorevolution has the potential to help address some of the most urgent global challenges, from climate change to pandemics, chronic diseases and food security for our growing world population.
Biology, life sciences and digitisation are moving ever closer together, enabling new inventions that significantly impact our daily lives. The list goes on as rapid increases in computing power and the emergence of new capabilities in AI, automation and data analytics are further accelerating the pace of innovation and the promise of higher R&D productivity in the life sciences.
Using the biorevolution to build a better world
I do not think it is an overstatement to sat that, with the right intentions and significant levels of investment, the biorevolution could be this generation’s vehicle towards a better world.
The biorevolution could address around 45% of global diseases using science and technology that already exists.”
Biological scientists have been driving revolutionary scientific breakthroughs and advancements for years. McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that 60% of “physical inputs”, including food, energy and even the materials for clothes, could be produced through biotechnology. Its estimates also show that biology-based innovations will generate $4 trillion in economic impact over the next few decades.
This is not a concept for some far-away future; similar to the mRNA technology that helped identify and sequence COVID-19, the biorevolution could address around 45% of global diseases using science and technology that already exists. At the convergence of science and technology, advances in biotechnology are already bringing about progress in clinical trials of vaccines, inspiring a search for gene and microbiome therapies and giving scientists invaluable insights into how viruses work.
Bayer aims to play a central role in the biorevolution by harnessing the power of these innovations.
Our investment arm, “Leaps by Bayer”, collaborates with and invests in companies pioneering gene editing and advancing therapies to cure cancer and genetic diseases. Recently, we announced promising initial results achieved by BlueRock Therapeutics, a Bayer subsidiary that began clinical trials with a new therapeutic approach for Parkinson’s disease. The trials will hopefully pave the way for major advances in the battle against this debilitating illness.
The agricultural angle
Disease treatment and prevention are not only important for human life, but for plant life as well.
In agriculture, biological tools and gene-editing technologies stemming from CRISPR ("clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats" – a family of DNA sequences) can make crops more weather- or disease-resistant. This helps farmers to grow more food and to persevere through harsh or changing conditions.
Moreover, biotechnology can help farmers produce a more sustainable food supply and significantly reduce agriculture’s global environmental footprint. At Bayer, our investments in biotechnology for its application in the agricultural sector are broad and driven by our firm belief in its potential.
They include the use of gene technology to contribute to increased yields and the reduction of the amount of land needed for agriculture thanks to developments in seeds.
Through Leaps, we are working with other companies like Joyn Bio that are using agricultural biotechnology to reduce the environmental impact of synthetic nitrogen. This could be big: ammonium-based fertilisers today are not only the highest input cost for farmers but also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
A successful biorevolution requires collaboration
We are convinced that the biorevolution has the potential to advance industries, disrupt supply chains as we know them, and create opportunities for business and innovation. But like with many innovations that hold great potential, challenges do exist.
These challenges are further complicated by the fact that the biorevolution is starting to gain momentum in times in which the world is diverging. Global partnerships in addressing the pressing ethical and regulatory challenges will be key to unleashing the potential of an age focussed not on bytes but on proteins.
This is true for the relationship between the East and the West but also for the way in which the European Union opens up to leverage the possibilities for health and farms alike.
Increasing understanding of the bioevolution
Companies, innovators and scientists alike must be transparent about both advancements in and uses of biotechnology. What's more, in order to promote innovation and to ensure the safety of biotechnology globally, we urgently need regulation that not only allows for, but facilitates, the fast pace of scientific progress.
We are still a long way away from fully realising the potential of the bioevolution. A major game changer would be global collaboration and coordination between regulators, the private sector, governments, associations and institutions, in order to embrace the benefits, but also manage the risks.
Can you imagine a world without hunger, in which humans could live longer lives with fewer diseases, and farmers could produce more food with fewer resources? We are convinced that the bioevolution holds the promise to get us closer to it.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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