Perspective: 40 Years of Biotech

Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN), a pioneering publication covering various biotech topics, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a special October issue. To mark the occasion, GEN asked thought leaders from industry and academia to comment on past achievements and anticipated advances in the biotech field. Inscripta’s Vice President of Mammalian Business Area and Software Strategy, Deanna Church, was among the invited guests.

When it comes to past achievements, many experts mentioned advances in DNA sequencing as one of the most notable scientific breakthroughs of the last four decades. The accelerating pace and decreasing cost have made DNA sequencing an enabling technology that led to many other discoveries. In particular, the completion of the Human Genome Project, which took 20 years, marked a turning point in the field of functional genomics and human disease treatment.

“Building on that pivotal project, the speed of biological learning over the last 40 years has been exponential—it continues to accelerate at a faster and faster pace,” remarked Emily Leproust, CEO of DNA synthesis company Twist Bioscience. The ability to not only read but also write DNA has been instrumental in many of the recent years’ biggest advances in biotech.

George Church, a professor at Harvard and MIT, also commented about the exponential improvements in reading and writing DNA and expressed hope that in the future we can “keep up the exponentials to enable equitable access to technologies and accompanying know-how.”

CRISPR was also one of the most cited recent innovations promising great advancements in the future. Rachel Haurwitz, President and CEO of Caribou Biosciences, described CRISPR genome editing as “incredibly exciting” and that it promises to change how we approach the treatment of human disease. The sentiment was seconded by Fyodor Urnov, Director of Technology and Translation at the Innovative Genomics Institute, who thinks CRISPR will transform functional genomics and allow us to uncover druggable targets for previously untreatable diseases.

More generally, industry leaders highlighted genome editing as having the potential to combat many of the problems humanity is facing, from food security to fighting emerging diseases. Deanna Church, who began her career as a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information working on the Human Genome Project, highlighted the use of programmable variation coupled with single-cell readouts and aided by machine learning as enabling tools that will accelerate our ability to interpret genomes and link genotypes to phenotypes.

The key to widespread adoption, she said, is “making the technology easy for anyone to use.” Other experts agree that the future of biotechnology will be marked by increased accessibility and convergence of different disciplines, including genome engineering, artificial intelligence and data science, engineering, chemistry, and materials science. Single-cell analysis and spatial biology, which depend on all of these components, will be the next biological frontier allowing us to “drill down to the most fundamental level of biology,” said Ben Hindson, CSO of 10x Genomics.

The Inscripta team would like to congratulate GEN on its 40th anniversary and extend our thanks to the generations of pioneering scientists who helped make today’s biotech advances possible.