With the beginning of a new year, we look in 2 articles ahead to inform you about major themes for 2018.
2017 showed that we are increasingly capable of manipulating the biological sphere. This new potential heralds a real Anthropocene: instead of ‘accidentally’ altering nature by pollution and extraction of resources, humans deliberately take biological change in their own hands. Applying big data to life sciences will start to progress and have more impact in 2018. This will bring us closer to some bold ideas of controlling nature and enhancing our body.
- In 2003, sequencing the human genome used to cost $2.7bn, today sequencing a human genome has become a routine, and costs have fallen below $1000. In 2017, sequencing has been used on a patient for the first occasion to improve treatment, and China started to sequence the genes of 1 million individuals to build a genetic database. Furthermore, 2017 was the year when scientists successfully repaired a genetic disease in an embryo for the first time.
- Canada recently announced to build a semi-automated factory to mass-produce transplantable stem cells. Canada is leading in AI and is thus well-positioned to take the lead in automated stem cell manufacturing. The wealth of data generated from existing cell facilities will be fed to AI algorithms that will learn how to optimize the production of stem cells.
- S. farmers are seeking to modify flies genetically instead of using pesticides to prevent crop damage. We will more often alter the traits of crops and animals (GMO, CRISPR) and the conditions of growing food indoor (precision farming), as water, healthy soil, and outdoor farming will become more scarce and expensive in the following years.
- While President Putin has declared Russia GMO-free, in the name of protecting his people from the risks of genetically modified food and pharmaceuticals, President Trump is opening doors to controversial geoengineering, despite the fact that we cannot oversee the risks of intervening with complex ecosystems. For example, very little is known about the impact of climate change on plants we eat, some talk about the Great Nutrient Collapse that goes unnoticed.
Rapid advances in cloud computing and computing power lead to new applications in a wide variety of contexts. They all boil down to one narrative: mastering the breadth of data helps to find patterns and outliers, and it enables to introduce more efficiency into systems. Complex systems like our body and the biological sphere around us are full of data. Only our own genome already amounts to 100GB. Better collection and analyses will lead to new possibilities of manipulating data to make systems more efficient, for example by eliminating human diseases and by enhancing traits of plants. We already see possibilities of intervening at a more genetic level, for instance with CRISPR. It shows how plants, animals, and humans can be unbundled to fundamental bits of information. They are now compartmentalized and become subject to manipulation at this very fundamental level.
With our body being more and more subjected to granular observation and manipulation, this new space of opportunities invites new players into the bodily domain.
With our body being more and more subjected to granular observation and manipulation, this new space of opportunities invites new players into the bodily domain. In the future, the traditional visit to the doctor will be combined with personalized medicine and treatment and by bio-digital interfaces to monitor your well-being. We will even optimize our diet by linking it to our DNA, modify single body parts, and intervene in the human design before birth. Manipulation of our body will extend from curing to enhancing. Eventually, with the growing insights into neurosciences, we will start enhancing our brains. As a matter of fact, companies are already competing in the race to hack the brain.
Beyond our body, we will see deliberate alterations of nature as well. In agriculture, we already notice how agriculture is increasing efficiency at the more granular level, with precision farming and GMO. Finally, we will more often connect this unbundled biology to technology. Our DNA might connect with digital entities in unknown ways, creating a new type of human being. In the Internet of DNA, we will be connected in new ways and with new relationships. Think of smart skin, where swarm AI and human input combined together creates new kinds of insights and intelligence, or miniaturized, implanted nano-devices programmed to read and correct signals along the nerves. Technology will unbundle and merge with biology; we will see biodegradable and environmental robots, intelligent soft robots, and smart dust. Nature’s data will be brought to life in technology.
- When it comes to life sciences, advances in analyzing biological data can potentially transform life science companies, healthcare, medicine, agriculture, and the food industry. The ones who will own or run the data sources at the center of complex systems are going to be able to derive the most value from them, like life science companies such as Monsanto, Novozymes, Chr. Hansen, and Regeneron and tech companies that moved into life sciences such as Dassault Systèmes, Alphabet, and IBM, trying to apply their world-class data processing to biological ventures.
- While some of our efforts are still dreams for the far future, like engineering our neurons to exchange data wirelessly with others, some developments in 2017 are considered to be breakthroughs in mastering nature’s data, like repairing a genetic disease in an embryo and signal an acceleration of our capacity to control and manipulate biology.