The Advancements Made in Ethical Biotechnology

By Anna Tamara
March 15, 2023
07 min
Advancements in ethical biotech.
Biotech, development, future.

Using science and technology to solve global challenges, innovation in biotech is transforming society. We look at some of the trends hurtling us toward a brighter future.

As biotech leaders race to solve the world’s most pressing problems, Crispr strides ahead as the industry’s most watched story. The gene-editing technology is behind the biggest breakthroughs in health-biotech. Described as ‘a molecular version of autocorrect for DNA’, Crispr is already changing lives. Victoria Gray, one of the first trial patients for Crispr treatment, says she’s been cured of her sickle-cell disease symptoms. 

The work of CRISPR Therapeutics AG, and others leading gene-editing technologies, like Vienna’s Intellia, exists in the shadow of big questions. The act of messing with human DNA is an ethical minefield, of course. And the cost of today’s treatment is sky high. Still, its promise to extend and improve human life, potentially freeing future generations from genetic diseases, keeps the world gripped as development drives forward. Investment, too: CRISPR’s net worth as of March is just under $4 billion; the gene editing market is predicted to be worth $19.4 billion by 2030.

Genome editing is full speed ahead in the biomedical space. But it’s just a slice of the groundbreaking progress in biotech. Today, environmental and food-related biotech moves us rapidly forward in approaches to climate, food and agriculture. Take the revolution in food production. In recent years, the alternative-protein industry has ramped up to offer more sustainable resources and decrease food’s environmental footprint (the UN estimates livestock is responsible for 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions).

Now facing down the conventional meat industry are biotech game-changers precision fermentation (re-engineering microbes, such as yeast, to produce protein) and cellular agriculture (growing animal products with cells). The next generation of food, The Good Food Institute reports in 2021 investors poured $3.7 billion into the technologies. Now, US industry leaders in lab-grown meat and dairy, like Upside Down and Perfect Day, are joined by labs popping up all over the world. Singapore’s ShiokMeats joins those reinventing seafood, on a mission to engineer shrimp, lobster, crab, and help protect our oceans. There’s even a cultivated fois gras scene: France’s Gourmey, Japan’s IntegriCulture and Belgium’s Peace of Meat all specialise in a cruelty-free version of the infamous luxury good. 

And the potential impact of technologies like these? Offsetting the growth of traditional meat production and moving the farming industry from red to green. By 2050, it’s expected cultivated meat and similar tech will reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 1.8 million tons. Looking further ahead, The Conversation predicts the shift to lab-grown food could release at least 80% of existing farmland back to nature in a century. 

To do so, this emerging global ecosystem will need to be green, too. The challenge is just how these industries reach the scale necessary to have that kind of impact. Fermentation and cultured meat technologies still require high capacity for high production. Over the next decade, the industry will need to establish greenfield infrastructure all over the world to meet the demand for bioreactors in various industries as they become integral to the supply chain. 

Getting ahead of the incoming bottleneck with sustainable solutions is one of the space’s biggest opportunities. Brazil ‘cleantech’ Amyris sets a global standard for its agility in scalable production. The world’s leading manufacturer of sustainable ingredients (converting basic plant sugars with synthetic biology), their newest facility paves the way again. Opening a precision fermentation plant in Barra Bonita, Brazil, home to one of the largest sugar mills in the world, they utilise locally-sourced sugarcane to reduce their carbon footprint.

Lgem apply this mindset to another buzzy biotech commodity: algae. Lgem’s systems take inspiration from vertical farming, and enable sustainable, industrial-scale production of health-boosting, age-defying algae strains like Chlorella and Spirulina, and more used in food, medicine and cosmetics. And we can expect to hear more about algae, as it promises to help industrial biotechnology run on renewable energy. Disruptive player CarbonWorks is developing a circular economy for carbon emissions, with algae which uses CO2 to grow. The French scale-up raised €11 million in 2022 for their plans to better capture and utilise industry emissions. Here, photosynthetic microalgae work their magic in transforming CO2 into efficient and safe raw materials on a large scale.

In environmental biotech, the idea of harnessing nature to help nature is not new. The world’s largest carbon capture plant Orca pumps CO2 deep into Iceland’s volcanic rocks, where it forms long-lasting carbonate minerals. San Francisco start-up Living Carbon plans to plant 5 million genetically-modified poplar trees, which grow 50% faster and capture 27% more carbon, across the US. Founder Maddie Hall, a former OpenAI employee, aims to “plant enough trees by 2030 to remove a gigaton of carbon.” 

And this trend is now being supercharged by AI. Deep-learning language models, the kind of AI behind ChatGTP, are used to generate novel protein sequences from scratch. Again we see the old and new world come together here. In Evozyne’s evolution-based enzyme design, the Chicago lab fuses nature’s rules with deep learning to “mimic millions of years of evolution in the lab”. Its uses could enhance carbon capture and battery technologies. 

We could all use some hope when it comes to the environment, so here’s more: if we maintain the momentum of Europe’s biotech innovation alone, McKinsey say the European Green Deal could become a reality by 2040. 

Feel like the future looks a lot less bleak? The collective force of innovations like these glimmer with promise to change our world for the better. So helping the industry reach its full potential, and stay sustainable and available to all, is key. The Netherlands is among those incentivising this mission with its €60 million investment in cellular agriculture, the largest government grant to the industry. The plans to involve high school students, create open access testing and scale-up facilities are a promising sign of things to come. Our lab-enhanced future could be bright. So here’s to more support for those working today to keep societies healthier, greener, and well-fed, long into the century.