Life is the most powerful technology in the Universe.
Life creates everything we recognize in the world around us from nothing but simple chemical ingredients and ambient energy from the sun or the churning Earth beneath us.
Without life, our sky would not even be blue. Without the activity of biology, the Earth would be a broiling hellscape devoid of features or beauty, suffocating under a runaway greenhouse effect like our neighbor Venus. Everything that is not made of stone or metal derives from the activity of life on Earth – and even some rocks owe their existence to life itself. All the oil, coal, and gas we use for energy and industry are the creation of biological life millions of years in the past.
As our understanding of biology has progressed into the age of information, a new industrial revolution is underway using the power of life itself. Here are four major ways biology is about to change the world, and why you should care:
New Products and Materials
The biology that most people would recognise is in the ongoing development of new medicines and healthcare products that will continue to revolutionise the treatment of human disease and support healthy longevity. In less than a century, human lifespan has increased over 60%, and a far lower percentage of people live in hunger than ever before.
In recent years, we have begun to see the deployment of new immunotherapies such as CAR-T to address previously incurable cancers and other diseases. The dawn of gene editing, epitomized by applications of Crispr/CAS-9 technology, is but the very beginning of a revolution in gene therapy, ushering in the potential to cure inherited conditions, or even repair the damage caused by degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Beyond the traditional application of biology to human health, there is an even more amazing movement underway to produce everything from food to fuels using biology as technology. Already we are seeing the production of everything from real silk made by yeasts (Bolt Threads), real meat made without animals (Memphis Meats), and fuel & chemicals made without petrochemical inputs (Amyris).
As more creative entrepreneurs begin to exploit the evermore accessible tools of biology, a new industrial revolution based on life itself is poised to dominate the future of manufacturing. Heavy industry is being usurped by a safer, more environmentally sound, more efficient, and less energy-intensive production by living machines. Biological means of production will enable a renaissance of local manufacturing, cutting long supply chains, increasing value to producers, and enabling a more sustainable and less polluting industrial base.
Surely the greatest common challenge of our time is to provide a more sustainable platform for supporting generations of human existence into the future. As civilization and human activity grow exponentially, so does our need for resources. Yet vast as it is, the Earth has but a limited capacity to provide those resources, and the limits of that capacity are much closer than many would care to imagine. Already, over ⅓ of the entire Earth’s land is used for agriculture and as human populations continue to grow, so will our need for food production; even accounting for increases in productivity, we are rapidly approaching maximum arable capacity, all the while losing large areas of land to overwork and degradation.
Providing for the food and energy needs of the world’s human population requires new ways of thinking about food technology. As traditional cropland nears capacity and is degraded, technologies such as hydroponics and vertical farming will become ever more important resources to produce the fruits and vegetables people need to survive and thrive. As the demand for meat reaches ever more unsustainable levels, we need to develop new technologies to provide humans with essential nutritious protein without the wholesale slaughter of billions of animals. As the energy, environmental, and logistical costs of petrochemicals grows ever larger, there is a pressing need to replace crude oil at the base of the supply chain with cleaner, more sustainable inputs. Biology is the only technology in existence capable of scaling exponentially for more than a limited time, and biotechnology will be the key to answering many of these existential challenges.
Specificity from Simplicity
One of the most amazing qualities of biology – of life itself – is its remarkable specificity of function, from a universally simple set of inputs. From a small variety of base chemicals, together with energy from the environment, life produces the complete selection of materials in the world around us. From the exquisite chemical reactions within cells that underpin the functions of our bodies, to the strength and structure of large plants and animals, to the role of individual creatures in a complex food web, nature demonstrates an incredible ability to create exact structures and chemical interactions to support specific functions across a vast variety of settings.
As we look forward to a future of greater efficiency, lower pollution, and stronger and more resilient engineering, we will need to embrace the highly accurate chemistry of life to provide the products that we need, free from damaging, expensive, or harmful side-products. Biology possesses the unique ability to meet these needs – to produce materials that are not just the right composition, but the exact right shape to perform a task optimally; to produce proteins strong enough to support the weight of a giant tree, or flexible enough to allow your skin to stretch and return its shape as the muscles underneath flex and pull.
Crucially for the field of human health, the production of drugs and therapies by biological means will enable safer, more effective treatments. Unlike industrial chemistry, biological production enables the creation of a single product virtually free from chemically similar yet ineffective or dangerous by-products, in turn reducing the risk of side-effects, or even the tragedy of drugs like Thalidomide. Using biology itself to make products for healthcare will allow for safer, less contaminated, and more specific therapies and health products.
The New Space Race
One of the defining aspects of the 21st Century so far is the democratization of space travel. Already since the turn of the millenium, space launch has progressed from a small number of national and government-subsidized players to include a slew of new and more nimble operations. As companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic have created a burgeoning private sector for moving cargo (and soon people) into and beyond Earth’s orbit, now is the time when visionaries are beginning to look beyond the narrow scope of nationalistic space missions to envision a future where humans can eventually become a multiplanetary species.
As these pioneers look to establish colonies on the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it will be necessary to look past the grand engineering challenges of spaceflight that have already demonstrated the necessary ability to deliver cargo to faraway destinations, and toward the biological challenges of keeping humans alive and healthy outside of the Earth’s protective biosphere. This is where we encounter the not-insignificant problem of non-existent technology:
It is not currently possible to keep a human being alive in the high-radiation environment of deep space, beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetic field for any appreciable period of time.
It is not feasible to transport the nearly 2000 pounds of food the average human eats per year to distant destinations such as the Moon or Mars – even accounting for an exponential decrease in launch costs, the economics of delivering the complete repertoire of human needs to faraway worlds is economically prohibitive.
Nor is it possible to transport all the medical supplies and drugs that even a small colony would need all the way from Earth.
For the establishment of successful off-world living, almost all the daily needs of the inhabitants will have to be produced on site – and that will require new technologies for growing food, producing medicines, and recycling waste products to maximise the use of available energy and materials. All these necessities require a better understanding of biology, of our own physiology, and the application of new innovations in the use and deployment of biological systems to these alien environments.
Understanding biology is the key to creating a more peaceful and prosperous world. Despite a hubristic quality to human self-awareness, all human society – whether trade, commerce, the economy, relationships within and between countries, or even the structures of society itself – stem from the complex interactions between millions of biological beings (i.e. us).
In order to fully understand how these massively complex interactions truly function, how they can best be managed, and the existential risks they face, it is essential to understand how massively complex biological relationships work. Biology is huge, complicated, and only now are we just beginning to understand how biological systems truly work through the application of massively complex computation and artificial intelligence. Even so, we are quite at the dawn of our understanding of the awesome complexity of life on Earth.
Biology is all our past, present, and future. As we stand at the dawn of our understanding of this most exquisite and complex technology, the 21st Century is bound to be defined by those who embrace and support the revolution in the industry of life itself.