The modern biotech industry was born when Genentech, now a part of Roche (OTC:RHHBY), was founded in 1976. Scientists at the company started a long history of innovation in 1978 by successfully expressing a human gene in bacteria that allowed them to produce human insulin. It became the first genetically engineered human medicine approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982 with the help of Eli Lilly. There's no denying the amazing early contributions Genentech made to the biotech industry, but things didn't really take off until polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, was invented in 1983.
The invention allowed scientists to amplify a single target strand of DNA hundreds of billions of times in a matter of hours with nothing more than a test tube, a handful of simple reagents, and heat. It also won Kary Mullis and Michael Smith the Nobel Prize in 1993. PCR alone didn't enable the modern biotech industry, but was a major driving force leading to hundreds of technologies in DNA cloning, genetic analysis, forensics, industrial biotechnology, biopharmaceuticals, and many other fields.
The world -- and your life -- would be very different without this simple reaction. Consider that when counting only true biotech industries -- industrial biotech, biopharmaceuticals, and biotech crops -- the American bioeconomy generated $350 billion in 2012, which represented 2.5% of GDP, according to noted entrepreneur and author Dr. Rob Carlson. By comparison, the nation's semiconductor industry generated nearly $322 billion last year. Given the multitude of emerging technologies, especially advances in DNA synthesis, it's impossible to ignore how important these bioindustries will be in the 21st century.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of this critical technology, let's explore some amazing facts about DNA and modern biotechnology that may not have existed otherwise.
- PCR is routinely used to identify the sources of new infectious diseases. The technology was used during the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003 to identify Coronavirus as the culprit and trace its origins -- work which took just one year to complete. Finding a similar needle (a tiny virus) in a haystack (Earth) would have been nearly impossible without PCR.
- DNA fingerprinting, used in paternity testing or to identify criminals, is possible with the smallest amount of genetic material thanks to PCR. Of course, it can also be used to prove innocence. Last year, the 300th prisoner in United States history was exonerated after DNA evidence showed he was convicted in error.
- Each cell in your body contains about two meters of DNA. If laid end-to-end it would measure 200 billion kilometers. That's long enough to stretch from Earth to the sun 1,333 times. To put that in perspective, it would take 7.4 days for sunlight to travel the same distance.
- You aren't that special. About 99.9% of your DNA is exactly the same as everyone else's. The other 0.1% codes for all of the differences that make us unique.
- All of the genetic information for every living organism is stored in combinations and sequences of just four molecules -- adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Differing sequences make up the 24,000 genes found in the human genome.
- Humans shares about 98% of their genes with chimpanzees, 92% with mice, 76% with zebrafish, 51% with fruit flies, 26% with thale cress (a type of weed), and 18% with E. coli bacteria.
- Fully 2.9% of my personal DNA came from Neanderthals, a now extinct hominid species, according to 23andMe. That places me in the 85th percentile of the site's users, but doesn't explain why I hate cold weather.
- Some of the genetic material that makes you, well, you, isn't of human origin. Viruses and bacteria can insert their DNA into your genome through a process called horizontal gene transfer, or HGT. Scientists have discovered that HGT is much more common in certain cancer cells than healthy cells, perhaps pointing to possible causes and cures.
- DNA isn't called the information molecule for nothing. Researchers have stored as much as 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA, while others have produced read-write DNA technology. If scaled properly, all of the information in the entire world -- videos, photos, scientific papers, the Internet, and the like -- would fit in the back of a single van, according to computational biologist Nick Goldman.
- Of course, the title of "information molecule" was granted for DNA's ability to pass genetic information from one cell (or cells) to another. That seems obvious, but it won't be for long. Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created a living cell with a synthetic genome made from scratch in 2010 (although it was modeled after a living organism), making it the first living cell on Earth in 3.5 billion years to not have a living parent. The synthetic genome did, however, cost $40 million to build.
- Why so expensive? Scientists at JCVI used first-generation genome engineering technologies, which resulted in many expensive discoveries for many more dead ends. Don't write-off the possibility of building fully synthetic organisms due to costs, however: next-generation genome engineering technologies can create one billion similarly sized genomes for just $9,000.
- There's a bigger bottleneck facing the industry than genome engineering. The world has become pretty good at DNA sequencing since completing The Human Genome Project in 2003 and now sports a sequencing capacity of over 1 trillion kilobases a year. Unfortunately, the world's DNA synthesis capacity is less than 230 million kilobases a year. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology applications will become accessible to more people as technology improves and costs come down in the coming years.
- Other technologies will also go a long way in enabling synthetic biology applications. For instance, Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK), the company famous for inventing AutoCAD and now revolutionizing 3-D printing platforms, is developing software design tools for programmable matter in living systems. Currently called Project Cyborg and in beta testing only, scientists will one day be able to design and build human tissues and organs, single cell organisms with novel metabolic pathways, and programmable nanoparticles. There are many obstacles to overcome before it can be fully functional, but we have to start somewhere.
- What are some functional applications of synthetic biology? Spider dragline silk is incredibly strong and flexible, but impossible to practically mass produce with spiders -- they're simply too territorial. Researchers at the University of Wyoming solved the problem by inserting the silk gene from spiders into more docile creatures: goats. These special dairy animals produce milk containing long, long strands of spider silk, which is then harvested from the milk with a spool in large quantities. The goats are left happy and unharmed.
- The media went wild with "spider goat" headlines when the research was announced, but using the building blocks of life (genes) to create efficient manufacturing processes is hardly new. In 1990 chymosin became the first food enzyme produced using recombinant DNA, or rDNA, technology. Researchers cloned the chymosin gene from cows into fungi and bacteria, which can produce the enzyme during fermentation in much larger quantities with much higher quality than the stomachs of dairy animals. As much as 90% of the hard cheese produced in the United States is produced with engineered chymosin.
- Fermentation is a great way to produce many other foods and chemicals. Renewable oils company Solazyme (NASDAQ:TVIA) is commercializing an industrial biotechnology platform using heterotrophic algae to produce a wide range of fatty acid-containing oils. One such oil profile is comprised of long-chained fatty acids consisting of eight to ten carbon molecules (C8-C10), which has applications in nutrition, lubricants, and biocides. Coconut and palm kernel oils naturally contain the C8-C10 compounds, but only 15% and 8%, respectively. In November management announced that engineers had coaxed algae to produce oil containing nearly 65% of the fatty acid mixture.
- Solazyme has also developed or is developing oils for fuels, nutritional ingredients, cosmetics, lubricants, dielectric media, and surfactants. All products provide sustainability and efficiency advantages over similar products sourced from nature (agricultural crops) and petroleum. The company's first two commercial facilities in Brazil and the United States are expected to begin operations early next year.
- Synthetic biology pioneer Amyris has developed yeasts for producing artemisinic acid, the world's most effective anti-malarial compound, and farnesene, an important building block molecule. Farnesene can be processed into everything from fuels to lubricants, synthetic rubber to cosmetic emollients. In fact, the emollient squalane is only found in limited quantities in nature in shark livers and olive oil. The company's first commercial facility in Brazil is already beginning to stabilize and grow the small global market for the compound -- despite only reaching steady-state operations in July.
- Solazyme and Amyris aren't the only industrial biotech companies exploding onto the scene. Gevo, Butamax, and Green Biologics are producing biobutanol from yeast and bacteria. BioAmber and Genomatica are producing BDO (1,4-butanediol) via fermentation. Joule Unlimited and Algenol are producing ethanol with cyanobacteria. Meanwhile, dozens of other start-ups and developmental companies are pushing forward with their own unique microbes and taking aim at the petroleum industry's stranglehold on chemical manufacturing.
- It may sound new or futuristic, but industrial biotechnology has been around since humans began mass producing beer 10,000 years ago. It was all made possible with a species of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which translates to "sugar fungi of beer", that is still used today.
- Microbes play critical roles recycling major nutrients in nature thanks to their ability to add and remove electrons to various compounds. That means fungi and bacteria can do a lot more than produce pharmaceuticals, fuels, beers, and other chemicals -- they can reduce compounds, too. Humans have hijacked this capability to remediate environmental spills, clean sewage, mine precious metals, and much more. In fact, microbial mining is the most cost effective and sustainable way to mine low-grade copper, gold, and uranium ore and has been used for over two decades.
- Wisconsin is so well-known for its cheese and dairy products that lawmakers named Lactococcus lactis the official state microbe in 2010 in a 56 to 41 vote. Saccharomyces cerevisiae ran a much smoother campaign in craft beer-friendly Oregon earlier this year, where lawmakers voted 58 to 0 to make it the state microbe.
- Not everything pertaining to industrial biotech and genetic engineering is controversy-free. Biotech crops were first commercialized in 1996 and ended the year planted on 1.7 million hectares of land. They finished 2012 covering an area of over 170 million hectares worldwide and a cumulative acreage of over 1.5 billion hectares since 1996.
- Developing countries planted more biotech crops than industrial nations for the first time in history in 2012. That's important because the growth rate in developing countries is almost four times as fast (11% vs. 3%) as the growth in industrialized countries. So if you thought growing 100-fold in 17 years represents an amazing pace of growth, we probably haven't seen anything yet.
- The European Union continues to be slow to adopt biotech crops. In 2012 only five countries in the EU planted such crops covering an area of just 129,071 hectares. By comparison, the United States planted 69,500,000 hectares of biotech crops last year.
- Several varieties of important agricultural crops have been given genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a natural insecticide. The breakthrough led to a 9% drop in worldwide pesticide use from 1996 to 2011, while Bt cotton and Bt corn saved farmers $57 billion in pesticide costs. How was it so successful so quickly? Bt toxin is only poisonous to insects. Fish, birds, humans, and other animals do not have the receptor to which the protein binds.
- The overall social and environmental benefits of biotech crops cannot be ignored. In 2011 alone their use reduced CO2 emissions by 23.1 billion kilograms, or the equivalent of removing 10.2 million cars from the world's roads. They have also saved 108.7 million hectares of land and lifted 15 million rural farmers and their families out of poverty.
- Biotech crops are just the beginning. Oxitec is developing genetically engineered insects designed to control populations of pests that spread disease and destroy crops. A carefully calculated number of sterile insects are released into the environment, where they breed with natural insects to drastically reduce the number of offspring produced. The company has already proven its technology for controlling Dengue Fever, which affects over 50 million people and costs $5 billion per year globally, in live field tests. Wild mosquito populations were reduced by 80% and maintained at low levels for the final seven weeks of the trials. More testing is needed, but the fate of the technology will soon rest in the hands of international governments.
- Of course, we can't forget about "traditional" biotech. Roche had owned a majority of Genentech since 1990 before acquiring the biotech pioneer in 2009 for $46.8 billion. Nonetheless, it is by far the largest merger and acquisition in the history of the biotech industry. The $15.2 billion acquisition of MedImmune by AstraZeneca (NASDAQ:AZN) in 2007 ranks a distant second.
- Talimogene laherparepvec, or T-VEC, was successfully developed by BioVex and Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) to treat melanoma. The immunotherapy is actually an engineered form of the virus that causes herpes, although it is no longer pathogenic. Instead, it is injected into cancer tissues, which it ruptures, while simultaneously rallying the body's own immune system. Amgen is now exploring the possibilities of combining T-VEC with other oncology payloads for treating other cancers.
Foolish bottom line
The world of biotech has come a long way since PCR was invented 30 years ago. Today, several amazing emerging technologies in DNA synthesis and genome editing promise to lead the next wave in innovation for the industry. It's impossible to say for certain what technologies will exist in another 30 years, but we can say that society and the global economy will be increasingly more reliant on wondrous advances in biotech.