We tend to think of innovation as a single event, but the truth is that it's an extended process of discovery, engineering and transformation. First, a scientist discovers a new phenomenon, then others figure out to use that knowledge to create a viable solution to an existing problem and finally a particular industry or field is transformed.
This process usually takes about 30 years, mostly because of the time it takes for a true transformation takes place. A revolutionary new technology needs to build up an ecosystem of suppliers, build a standard set of tools and practices and develop markets that have learned to make productive use out of it.
It appears that genomics is hitting that point now. Although the cost to sequence a genome has been falling, at a rate that far exceeds Moore's law, for some time now, we've seen little effect in the marketplace. That's beginning to change though. As we move beyond just reading genomes, to increasingly being able to write them, the genomics revolution is upon us.
How CRISPR Changed the Game
In 1987, a molecular biologist named Yoshizumi Ishino came across something unexpected in his lab at Osaka University. While researching a particular bacterial gene, he accidentally cloned a strange set of repeated sequences. Over the years, similar sequences were found independently at other labs, but nobody could figure out what their function was.
Over time, scientists increasingly began to expect that these sequences, which came to be known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), had some immune related function. They also discovered a variety of CRISPR associated proteins (CAS), that appeared to work in tandem with the genomic sequences.
Things came to a head in 2012, when a team led by Jennifer Doudna at the University of California at Berkeley was able to show in her lab that CRISPR, along with an associated protein called Cas9, could be used to edit genes far more accurately and far more cheaply than anything that anyone had ever seen before.
Doudna's breakthrough opened up the floodgates. In just 6 short years, CRISPR has become a standard tool in the genomic toolbox, sparking a string of breakthroughs as well as countless startup companies and billions of dollars of invested capital.
The Rise of Synthetic Biology
When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it was a revelation. Now scientists could actually read the language of life and begin to understand, on a basic molecular level, how many diseases come to pass as well as how biological products, such as spider silk, are made. Since that time, the costs for reading DNA have dropped by well over 90%.
Yet as Andrew Hessel, CEO of Humane Genomics, a seed-stage company developing virus-based therapies for cancer, explained to me, the true revolution will come when the value of a sequenced genome exceeds the cost to produce one. He believes we're beginning to hit that inflection point now as the ecosystem of tools is beginning to both mature and accelerate.
"Writing DNA with high accuracy and efficiency allows us more control of the things we can do downstream in a clinical or industrial environment," Ted Tisch, COO at Synthego, a company that offers CRISPR-based tools to its customers, told me. "What we're doing is to provide platforms to scale that process, make it more reproducible, more efficient and more able to move new solutions to market quickly."
"There are thousands of diseases that can be attributed to an error in a single letter of genetic code," he continued. "Many of these only afflict a few dozen people worldwide and discovering treatment is not economically viable. With these new tools, however, I believe we're on the brink of a revolution, much like what happened in digital technology, where costs come down to such an extent that the once impossible or impractical becomes not only possible but commonplace."
Beyond Medicine and Agriculture
While much of the excitement around genetic engineering has been around medical applications, especially cancer and genetic diseases such as Sickle Cell Anemia, Cystic Fibrosis and Multiple Sclerosis, the potential goes far beyond that. Christina Agapakis, Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks, told me that her company is working to make genomic based products a key component of the industrial economy.
"I think that in ten years we'll see biology as more than just medicine and agriculture, but increasingly as a key component in our everyday products, helping to create better products at lower cost that are healthier and more environmentally friendly," she says. For example, Adidas's recent launch of biodegradable shoes made from genetically engineered spider silk gives us a glimpse of what we can expect in the future.
"At Ginkgo, we're working to make biology easier to engineer," she told me excitedly, "transforming living cells into factories that create products like flavors and fragrances, food ingredients like vitamins and even materials for manufacturing products, in some cases replacing materials usually made from petroleum with renewable sources."
There is also great potential for leveraging genomics to advance information technology. For example, a company called Catalog is working to use DNA, which is a million times more information dense than today's flash drives, to store massive amounts of data. It expects to have its first prototype ready by early next year.
Bracing for Impact
In the 1880s, the revolutionary technologies of internal combustion and electricity just began to emerge as practical applications. However, the immediate impact was relatively muted. In fact, as Robert Gordon explains in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, we didn't see a productivity boost until the 1920s.
Nevertheless, when the impact hit, it fueled a massive boom in productivity that lasted 50 years, until the 1970s. By comparison, the digital revolution was relatively meager, only producing a relatively short increase in productivity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There is simply more value in atoms than there are in bits.
That's why there is so much about genomics to be excited about. "The programming of biology is the future," says Hessel of Humane Genomics. "When you can just print out code that can reprogram a cell or even make a cell, that is one of the most powerful technologies that humans have ever had access to."
We're beginning to enter a new era of innovation, in which rather than just increasing our ability to move bits across screens and from server to server, we're increasingly using bits to drive atoms in the physical world. The advance in genomics, along with similar progress being made in materials science and robotics, may very well fuel a new era of abundance and prosperity.