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OODA Special Report: Executive’s Guide To The Revolution in Biology

Note: This is an update to our report on what executives need to know about the business impact of biological sciences.

As a technologist it has been very exciting to watch how advanced capabilities in IT have accelerated a revolution in applied biology. The developments in understanding of biology are already producing results for humanity and all indications are that this revolution is just beginning. It is also becoming clear that this revolution will provide opportunities for businesses in other sectors of the economy. Business leaders should pay attention to the revolution in applied biology and consider what sort of shifts it should compel to your strategy.

With the rise of Covid-19 (see OODA Special Report:COVID-19 Sense-making) and the global response to the pandemic we see even more reason to believe that the next decade may well be the decade remembered for advancements in biological sciences.

Which leads to the big point for you: Any leader in business or government should have at least a basic understanding of the biological sciences. Advancements in the science here will impact markets, employees, government policies, and even the global strategic environment.

This executive’s guide provides an overview of key thrusts of the transformation underway in biology and offers ten topics we recommend leaders understand and track. The guide concludes with seven recommendations for action around your business strategy.

The key domains we recommend business leaders track include:

  • New Ways of Understanding the Genome
  • Epigenetics
  • Editing the Genome (i.e., with CRISPR)
  • Genetic Databasing
  • Building a Human Cell Atlas
  • Genetic Testing
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Biohacking
  • Nootropics
  • Extending useful, productive life

Understanding the Genome

Genes are the codes that tell cells how to function, specifically by telling them how to make proteins. The term “genome” refers to all an organization’s genes. In other words, the genome is the complete set of genes.

Genes are made of DNA, the stuff we all learn about in elementary school as the self-replicating code of life. DNA was first identified in the 1860’s. The first rudimentary mapping of genes began in 1911. Since then, through discovery after discovery, researchers hoped to one day know where the genes are in relationship to each other. By the mid-1980’s enough foundational knowledge existed to turn mapping the human genome into an audacious goal, and the human genome project was kicked off in 1990 and completed in 2003 .

The human genome project resulted in genetic maps that indicate there are just over 20,000 human genes. They now have their locations identified in ways that are detailed enough to track how these basic inheritable instructions work in the development of human beings.

Upon publication of the majority of the genome, genomic researcher Francis Collins noted that the genome could be thought of in terms of a book with multiple uses: “It’s a history book – a narrative of the journey of our species through time. It’s a shop manual, with an incredibly detailed blueprint for building every human cell. And it’s a transformative textbook of medicine, with insights that will give health care providers immense new powers to treat, prevent and cure disease.”

The state of the art in this field today is known as Next-Generation DNA Sequencing or NGS. This is a growing market area, which, according to ARK Investment Management, could see growth of up to 43% per year, growing to $21 Billion in revenues by 2024.  Since that estimate was made pre-COVID, we have to assume this number could grow faster and larger.

Epigenetics

For the longest time, scientists felt your genes determined just about everything. But it turns out that some genes express themselves or become active because of things in the environment. This is the domain of epigenetics. Its study has transformed how we think about the genome.

What you eat, what you drink, how much you sleep, how you exercise and many other environmental factors can influence you and your body through epigenetics. Research indicates that some types of diseases that people are predisposed to through genetics can be influenced by epigenetics, giving hope that the right kind of environmental changes can help beat many genetic diseases.

Researchers hope that when the entire genome is known and computing power is great enough every possible combination of epigenetic influence on genes will be known and one day allow new cures to horrible diseases. This may be the research path that cures cancer, stops obesity, slows aging and empowers humanity to reach entirely new levels of achievement.

The complexities of epigenetic influence hard to fathom. As an example, some research indicates that some people who drink green tea have less cancer. More research could determine whether this is coincidence or if something in the green tea triggers an epigenetic response that works with some and not others.

Editing the Genome (via methods like CRISPR)

CRISPR is a powerful method that enables researchers to manipulate the genome.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Sounds pretty scientific doesn’t it? It could have been called anything, but Francisco Mojica picked that and since he was the first to begin work on this critical topic (and the first to notice how bacteria use CRISPR for immune defense) he got to call it whatever he wanted. Whatever it is called, it is now considered one of the most important discoveries of the century.

What’s the big deal around CRISPR? Its discovery led researchers to realize how processes in bacteria splice up the DNA of certain invading virus DNA and then use them as an immune system. Study of this allowed researchers to replicate the methods and do their own gene editing.

This has kicked off a massive flood of research into CRISPR related technologies, some of which are already showing promising results. Watch this space for innovations that may one day address and mitigate inheritable diseases. Other research may create new ways to produce drugs from bacteria. Other research may produce super-food crops or organisms that capture sunlight and produce energy and much higher levels than any plant today. Really the sky is the limit here.

CRISPR technology is also producing its share of ethics concern. Now that we have this almost magical cut-and-paste tool for genomes, what limits should we have regarding its use on people? Should parents or countries be able to select traits for newborn? Gene edited babies have already been born. This news shocked the community in November 2018. A researcher in China claimed to have altered embryos to remove a gene thought to give predisposition to HIV, Smallpox and Cholera. The disclosures provoked an international outcry over ethics violations.

There are other means of altering the genome, including the use of specialized designer virus treatments to cure hereditary diseases. These treatments are currently very expensive but prices will probably drop over time. See: Gene Therapy in the MIT technology review.

Genetic Databasing

The success of DNA testing in law enforcement gave rise to DNA databases that can be used to solve crimes and exonerate the falsely convicted. Both of those powerful use cases set off waves of innovation that led to databasing for a wide range of other uses including for medical research, ancestor research and for hobbyists seeking to know more about themselves.

Now nations are establishing databases and projections are that very soon many nations will begin collecting DNA on all their citizens and travelers to or through their borders. Both open and closed societies are moving in this direction (The EU has voted to establish a biometric repository known as the Common Identity Repository (CIR)). There are also commercial repositories being established for consumer use that will end up providing data to large corporations and governments. We have to assume that one day soon there will be genetic data available on every human. Society will have to establish rules on how that genetic data is treated, since violations of the privacy of what that genetic data says is a violation of privacy not only for the individual concerned, but for every family member living and not yet born.

Building a Human Cell Atlas

Cells are the building blocks of life and the place where all the action really is. But in many ways, research into what happens in the cell has really just begun. We know stuff occurs there but in so many cases do not know where or how or when in the dynamic living cell the key actions are sparked, or which cells in what part of the body take an action. Technology today has advanced to the point where we can make significant progress in knowing what is really happening if we pull together all the right data. This is the thrust of the Human Cell Atlas project, a global activity bringing together 1000’s of researchers into one of the most ambitious efforts in the history of biology.

The project intends to catalog all of the estimated 37 trillion cells that make up a human body, then data on what genes are active in each cells will be brought together into a more comprehensive may than has ever been built. If successful, this project will knit together information on how cells organize into tissues, how they communicate, how they work together, and how they fail.

Research into these topics is already producing promising results in helping match patients to the right treatments. We expect far more in the very near future.

Genetic Testing

Genetic testing encompasses a broad range of tests associated with the genome. The most famous is the now old fashioned DNA test that can tell if some evidence came from a person or help find a person from matches to relatives. But genetic testing can now do far more. Over 1,000 different types of genetic testing are in routine use now. These tests all look at your genes. Genetic testing can identify increased risks of health problems, changes in chromosomes, genes or proteins and can help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder. Testing can also help assess optimal responses to treatments. Genetic tests can screen newborn babies for certain treatable conditions.

Genetic testing systems are advancing in ways that are significantly reducing their costs and making the testing systems more mobile. All indications are that these tests will be so low cost and so comprehensive soon that everyone will be able to afford them.

Synthetic Biology

This is an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering that aims to fabricate biological components and systems. This is a well developed, mature field. Results of this tinkering with mother nature include new ways to produce biofuels, bio-products, renewable chemicals, bio-based speciality chemicals (pharmaceutical intermediates, fine chemicals, food ingredients) and many other real world results.

Scientists have already used these methods to produce synthetic life. In 2010 the world’s first synthetic life form, a single cell organism based on an existing bacterium using a synthetic genome. The resulting cell had “watermarks” written into it to identify it as synthetic.

Synthetic Biology is also being used to grow replacement organs and soft tissue. Firms have also been founded that are using the methods of synthetic biology to produce specialty materials like polymers with application in other industries including manufacturing and the military.

Biohacking

Biohacking is a movement of people who want to use science to be the best they can be. It flows from a realization that what we eat and drink can alter our state (through changing our internal chemistry and also through epigenetics). Biohackers generally use tools to measure food and beverage inputs and test the effect of different tweaks to their mental performance. In many cases, biohacking is primarily eating in ways nutritionists recommend… having plenty of vegetables, drinking plenty of water, avoiding foods polluted with horrid things like pesticides or hormones or, perhaps worse of all, sugar.

Nootropics

The word Nootropic was coined in 1972 to mean mind-bending. It is used now to mean supplements that can improve brain function. Nootropics, which are sometimes called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, are supplements that are believed to improve cognitive function like memory, creativity or motivation. Research into nootropics is inconclusive at best, and it can be very hard to know if results claimed by nootropics users are placebo effects or real. However, the sale of Nootropics is now measured in billions of dollars per year. Some Nootropics are pharmaceutical drugs (like central nervous system stimulants) that can have serious side effects. Other Nootropics are commonly known and used, including coffee/caffeine, ginseng, turmeric, ginkgo biloba and concoctions like Bulletproof Coffee (a mix of coffee, oils and butter).

Extending Useful, Productive Life

Extending useful, productive life is the goal of healthcare. It includes the maintenance or improvement of health via the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, recovery, or cure of disease, illness, injury, and other physical and mental impairments in people.

Healthcare is personal to everyone and has always been a subject front of mind to most. But with a global pandemic healthcare is now an even bigger part of our personal lives and business decisions. The many topics around healthcare in the COVID-19 pandemic, including issues of prevention, treatment, vaccines, is shedding light on the overall healthcare system in ways that we believe will add more impetus for all to invest more in biological sciences and healthcare solutions.

This is a broad topic, but key subjects to track include breakthroughs in:

  • Molecular Diagnostics
  • Genetic Testing
  • Gene Therapies
  • Instrumentation and Analysis
  • Bioinformatics
  • Targeted Therapeutics

Tracking this topic also requires understanding of how the digital revolution is impacting the business of healthcare (for more on that see: the OODA Special Report on Digital Transformation in the Health Care Sector)

What does all this mean for business?

The bio-revolution will impact many businesses out side the biology sector. We recommend organizations work through the following considerations to decide how your strategy should shift because of it:

  • Consider whether or not the bio-revolution will enable your firm to modify existing offerings or create and offer new products or services.
  • Consider whether the bio-revolution will open up new markets for your firm.
  • If you are not already in the health/life-sciences or other bio sectors, consider how your current offerings can serve firms that are leading the bio-revolution.
  • If you are an IT or security firm, consider your offerings regarding security of bio information including genetic data.
  • Consider if your workforce will need training in new technologies to complete in new markets created by the bio-revolution
  • Consider how to apply the lessons of the bio-revolution to improve the cognitive capabilities of your workforce. This could include simple steps like improving the diet of your knowledge workers and executives or introducing aerobic exercise into the daily regimen of your workforce.
  • Consider how your supply chain might be able to provide new products or services based on synthetic biology

If your firm is in biology-related sectors including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, agriculture

The pace of technology advancement is moving so fast in these interrelated sectors that security is too often an after-thought in systems development. It is critical to consider how data produced and used will be protected from exploitation. Intellectual property and methods also need protecting. We recommend your cybersecurity strategy be reviewed by expects (OODA can help) and your approaches be independently reviewed.

For Private Equity and other financial services firms

Due diligence assessments on firms that leverage biological sciences are critically important, of course. Be sure your assessments consider the security of IP of these firms, as well as the security of data and algorithms.

Additional Resources:

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes OODALoop.com. Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social