The last decade was defined by a software revolution that coded almost every corner of the economy.
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Will the decade ahead be shaped by a similar coding revolution in genomics?
Genomics is the use of gene editing to create materials and products. Part of a new wave of bio-engineering, it could help firms overcome daunting supply chain challenges exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It could also transform agriculture, energy production and the way we make everything from clothing and food to metals and plastics.
“We can actually now use biology to make useful products,” Bettina Hamelin, president and CEO of Ontario Genomics, a provincial group that bridges business, research and government, says on the latest episode of RBC Disruptors.
According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, 60% of physical inputs into the global economy could be produced biologically. That could save producers $4 trillion a year — about what we’re spending to stave off a pandemic-induced economic collapse. It could also help the world reduce carbon emissions and deforestation, and address economic inequality by redistributing production to smaller centres.
Indeed, by allowing inputs to be engineered in the same place as the finished product, genomics could help companies manufacture goods closer to consumers – enabling smaller economies like Canada to reduce their reliance on sprawling global supply chains.
“You’re able to distribute manufacturing centres in locales all over the place,” says Rob Annan, president and CEO of Genome Canada, a federally-funded not-for-profit that helps develop genome-based technologies. “This gets to the idea of supply chain resiliency – you don’t need to manufacture everything offshore and then ship it all over the world.”
We’ve long depended on genomics for critical products like insulin. But the field has accelerated in recent years thanks to strides in computing power and artificial intelligence. A human genome once required 15 years and $2 billion to sequence. Now it can be done in 24 hours, for less than $1,000.
Today, the pandemic has intensified the race to advance genomics applications for new vaccines and drugs.
Dr. Annan sees genomics as “more of a philosophy than a technology” in our approach to living organisms – one that can help us embrace new strategies for the end-to-end use of materials.
Britain’s approach to synthetic biology has led to the creation of 150 startups in the genomics field, and $1 billion in new investments. The United States, Australia, China and Singapore are also viewed as leaders.
Dr. Annan believes Canada too, has an opportunity to apply genomics to an array of traditional sectors – transforming an economy still seen as one of “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”
But to keep pace, we will need a more innovative approach to regulations, including the management of genetic data, Dr. Hamelin said. The field of genomics generates almost as much data as YouTube and Twitter combined, benefitting regions where scientists and supercomputers can most effectively map data.
Public acceptance is another hurdle. The McKinsey study found 70% of success in genomics depends on consumer adoption and regulation.
Canada also lacks a sophisticated financial system to fund entrepreneurs working in the field or to capitalize larger companies that use genomics to remake their supply chains.
Dr. Annan points to the growing number of younger people entering the discipline as a competitive advantage for Canada.
“Our researchers are using these tools to … develop really new, advanced diagnostics,” he says. “They’re using them to produce candidate vaccines for COVID-19 in bacterial or yeast cells. We’re using this to do bio-monitoring of ecosystems and tracking of endangered species in the Arctic. So there’s lots of ways genomics and genomic sciences are being applied to everyday life.”
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.
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