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2018 was bonkers for science.
From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.
With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.
Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.
Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.
Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.
In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.
In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.
By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.
Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.
The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.
Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.
A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.
The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.
Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.
Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.
With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.
In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.
But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.
The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.
This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.
If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.
Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.
But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.
Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”
Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.
2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.
Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.
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From a first-principles perspective, the task of feeding eight billion people boils down to converting energy from the sun into chemical energy in our bodies.
Traditionally, solar energy is converted by photosynthesis into carbohydrates in plants (i.e., biomass), which are either eaten by the vegans amongst us, or fed to animals, for those with a carnivorous preference.
Today, the process of feeding humanity is extremely inefficient.
If we could radically reinvent what we eat, and how we create that food, what might you imagine that “future of food” would look like?
In this post we’ll cover:
CRISPR engineered foods
The alt-protein revolution
Let’s dive in.
Where we grow our food…
The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles from farm to table. Wine from France, beef from Texas, potatoes from Idaho.
Imagine instead growing all of your food in a 50-story tall vertical farm in downtown LA or off-shore on the Great Lakes where the travel distance is no longer 1,500 miles but 50 miles.
Delocalized farming will minimize travel costs at the same time that it maximizes freshness.
Perhaps more importantly, vertical farming also allows tomorrow’s farmer the ability to control the exact conditions of her plants year round.
Rather than allowing the vagaries of the weather and soil conditions to dictate crop quality and yield, we can now perfectly control the growing cycle.
LED lighting provides the crops with the maximum amount of light, at the perfect frequency, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At the same time, sensors and robots provide the root system the exact pH and micronutrients required, while fine-tuning the temperature of the farm.
Such precision farming can generate yields that are 200% to 400% above normal.
Next let’s explore how we can precision-engineer the genetic properties of the plant itself.
CRISPR and Genetically Engineered Foods
What food do we grow?
A fundamental shift is occurring in our relationship with agriculture. We are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by human direction.
CRISPR (the cutting edge gene editing tool) is providing a pathway for plant breeding that is more predictable, faster and less expensive than traditional breeding methods.
Rather than our crops being subject to nature’s random, environmental whim, CRISPR unlocks our capability to modify our crops to match the available environment.
Further, using CRISPR we will be able to optimize the nutrient density of our crops, enhancing their value and volume.
CRISPR may also hold the key to eliminating common allergens from crops. As we identify the allergen gene in peanuts, for instance, we can use CRISPR to silence that gene, making the crops we raise safer for and more accessible to a rapidly growing population.
Yet another application is our ability to make plants resistant to infection or more resistant to drought or cold.
Helping to accelerate the impact of CRISPR, the USDA recently announced that genetically engineered crops will not be regulated—providing an opening for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the opportunities for optimization CRISPR enables.
CRISPR applications in agriculture are an opportunity to help a billion people and become a billionaire in the process.
Protecting crops against volatile environments, combating crop diseases and increasing nutrient values, CRISPR is a promising tool to help feed the world’s rising population.
The Alt-Protein/Lab-Grown Meat Revolution
Something like a third of the Earth’s arable land is used for raising livestock—a massive amount of land—and global demand for meat is predicted to double in the coming decade.
Today, we must grow an entire cow—all bones, skin, and internals included—to produce a steak.
Imagine if we could instead start with a single muscle stem cell and only grow the steak, without needing the rest of the cow? Think of it as cellular agriculture.
Imagine returning millions, perhaps billions, of acres of grazing land back to the wilderness? This is the promise of lab-grown meats.
Lab-grown meat can also be engineered (using technology like CRISPR) to be packed with nutrients and be the healthiest, most delicious protein possible.
We’re watching this technology develop in real time. Several startups across the globe are already working to bring artificial meats to the food industry.
JUST, Inc. (previously Hampton Creek) run by my friend Josh Tetrick, has been on a mission to build a food system where everyone can get and afford delicious, nutritious food. They started by exploring 300,000+ species of plants all around the world to see how they can make food better and now are investing heavily in stem-cell-grown meats.
Backed by Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Memphis Meats is working on ways to produce real meat from animal cells, rather than whole animals. So far, they have produced beef, chicken, and duck using cultured cells from living animals.
As with vertical farming, transitioning production of our majority protein source to a carefully cultivated environment allows for agriculture to optimize inputs (water, soil, energy, land footprint), nutrients and, importantly, taste.
Vertical farming and cellular agriculture are reinventing how we think about our food supply chain and what food we produce.
The next question to answer is who will be producing the food?
Let’s look back at how farming evolved through history.
Farmers 0.0 (Neolithic Revolution, around 9000 BCE): The hunter-gatherer to agriculture transition gains momentum, and humans cultivated the ability to domesticate plants for food production.
Farmers 1.0 (until around the 19th century): Farmers spent all day in the field performing backbreaking labor, and agriculture accounted for most jobs.
Farmers 2.0 (mid-20th century, Green Revolution): From the invention of the first farm tractor in 1812 through today, transformative mechanical biochemical technologies (fertilizer) boosted yields and made the job of farming easier, driving the US farm job rate down to less than two percent today.
Farmers 3.0: In the near future, farmers will leverage exponential technologies (e.g., AI, networks, sensors, robotics, drones), CRISPR and genetic engineering, and new business models to solve the world’s greatest food challenges and efficiently feed the eight-billion-plus people on Earth.
An important driver of the Farmer 3.0 evolution is the delocalization of agriculture driven by vertical and urban farms. Vertical farms and urban agriculture are empowering a new breed of agriculture entrepreneurs.
Let’s take a look at an innovative incubator in Brooklyn, New York called Square Roots.
Ten farm-in-a-shipping-containers in a Brooklyn parking lot represent the first Square Roots campus. Each 8-foot x 8.5-foot x 20-foot shipping container contains an equivalent of 2 acres of produce and can yield more than 50 pounds of produce each week.
For 13 months, one cohort of next-generation food entrepreneurs takes part in a curriculum with foundations in farming, business, community and leadership.
The urban farming incubator raised a $5.4 million seed funding round in August 2017.
Training a new breed of entrepreneurs to apply exponential technology to growing food is essential to the future of farming.
One of our massive transformative purposes at the Abundance Group is to empower entrepreneurs to generate extraordinary wealth while creating a world of abundance. Vertical farms and cellular agriculture are key elements enabling the next generation of food and agriculture entrepreneurs.
Technology is driving food abundance.
We’re already seeing food become demonetized, as the graph below shows.
From 1960 to 2014, the percent of income spent on food in the U.S. fell from 19 percent to under 10 percent of total disposable income—a dramatic decrease over the 40 percent of household income spent on food in 1900.
The dropping percent of per-capita disposable income spent on food. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Expenditure Series
Ultimately, technology has enabled a massive variety of food at a significantly reduced cost and with fewer resources used for production.
We’re increasingly going to optimize and fortify the food supply chain to achieve more reliable, predictable, and nutritious ways to obtain basic sustenance.
And that means a world with abundant, nutritious, and inexpensive food for every man, woman, and child.
What an extraordinary time to be alive.
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