Researchers John Dalton and Molly Gumpert report on advancements in genome editing, in what they call the “dawn of a new biological age” as scientists have found ways to completely reprogram and even create new genes. These innovations can fundamentally change the health expectations of humans forever.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique technology that allows scientists to essentially remove, add, “turn off,” or alter sections of an organism’s DNA.1 Beyond editing genes, scientists are working towards creating entirely new genomes from scratch. While this isn’t fully novel (there was a synthetic cell created in 2017) scientists recently found ways to control lab-created cells.
Dalton explains that synthetic biology could usher in a new “biological age,” where genetic tools are used to transform healthcare, think viruses programmed to attack cancer; creating new, ethically-sourced foods to feed a growing population; and fighting climate change.
Many questions extend from their research: What does it mean to be “natural” in this new age? What does a population that lives longer and healthier look like –– how will it disrupt what we view as “normal?”
Dalton and Gumpert discuss the need to address carbon emissions, and the role decarbonization tech can play in fighting climate change.
They mention that “even if humans immediately stopped producing carbon today, it would take natural processes thousands of years to reduce atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial levels.” The $2 billion decarbonization industry tackles this problem on multiple fronts – reducing emissions at the source, removing it from the air, and putting captured carbon to use.
Solutions in this space may sit on factory chimneys, filtering out carbon before it reaches the environment, while others filter the air, reducing the carbon particles in the atmosphere. Once captured, some companies are transforming carbon into other useful products, like dry ice and jet plane fuel.
The most compelling processes use natural solutions, such as one company that employs microalgae, which naturally transforms Co2 and sunlight into biogenetic limestone, a key component in the typically carbon-intensive cement industry. Thus, this technology removes carbon from the air while showing a pathway for carbon-negative cement creation.
The design of robots is shifting from “dumb, large, and clunky machines” to microscopic devices the size of a grain of sand that can “deliver targeted medications, monitor cellular activities, and even attach to deficient sperm cells to help them attach to eggs.”
Dalton and Gumpert acknowledge the advances in the very hot topic of artificial intelligence but stress that the media often ignores that some of the most useful robots will look and behave more like fungi, bacteria, algae, ferns, eels, or bees than those depicted in science-fiction novels.
One of the most necessary advances for robots to be useful is for them to learn “soft manipulation.” By this, Dalton and Gumpert mean that it is vital for robots to learn how to delicately, but firmly, handle soft, fragile, and diverse materials. To learn this sensitivity, researchers are teaching robots to not only mimic human actions –– like that of fingers –– but also those of octopus tentacles and elephant trunks.
Robots will likely fundamentally change everything from how humans rehabilitate from injury to human space exploration.
Future of Food
Dalton and Gumpert also address the future of food amid growing shortages.
While tasked with the heavy burden of feeding an ever-growing population, the agricultural industry is facing several headwinds including labor shortages, rising production costs, and pressure to drastically lower environmental impact.
From 2021 to 2022, the cost of growing an acre full of corn rose 19%, while the production of soybean oil went up over 30%. , This is coupled with an ever-increasing population and growing social and political impetus to shift away from foods that have environmentally taxing production costs.
Meat particularly has gained attention for its large production costs. For example, meat and dairy production account for roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as ships, cars, and trucks. Accordingly, VC investment has gone up by a remarkable 609% from 2018 to 2019 in the meat alternative space.
Robots re-enter the picture, as companies are building robots that can take care of multiple cows at once, check and pick fruit for optimal ripeness, and even create bee alternatives to help pollinate plants and flowers.
Sociocultural moves –– like pushing towards in-door farming –– and changing the components of what we view as a normal meal, like meat alternatives, also aim to help feed our growing population and protect our earth.
Finally, Dalton and Gumpert address the future of deep space discovery. NASA has consistently faced budget cuts (adjusting for inflation) since the 1960s. However, recently there’s been a revival in space exploration, optimism, and investment both by the US government and private enterprise.
There are serious challenges though. Firstly, there are over 21,000 pieces of junk in orbit larger than 10cm and an estimated half a million pieces between 1cm and 10cm; there are millions of bits smaller than that. From a meteor that can hit a spaceship, to space junk the size of a grain of salt –– which could penetrate a spacesuit –– the massive amounts of debris in outer space pose a huge challenge for space travel.
Beyond the challenges related to space travel, it is unclear how to monetize exploration. Believers are betting there’ll be future profitability in ideas like zero-gravity manufacturing, outer space bio-tech –– ranging from growing human tissue to barley for beer –– and geospatial analytics. Certain aspects, like building the new International Space Station and commercial space travel, are already proving to be lucrative for businesses.
Why It Matters
Advances in genomic editing aim to greatly extend the lifespan of humans. At the same time, innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence will likely take over many jobs that presently exist.
While these technologies may seem far-fetched –– it is important to start thinking of them now. The recent popularlity, debate, and controversy surrounding generative AI showed just how little the public was aware of the power of artificial intelligence. Perhaps it is important for the public to be involved–– or at least aware –– with the leapshot advances in technology entrepreneurs are aiming for.
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