Welcome to part two of this week’s series on what I (Nick O’Connor) consider to be the single most important technology of the next century.
It’s so important I’ve kicked Harry out of the Exponential Investor hot seat for the week to talk to you about it. Don’t worry, I’ll let him loose again next week.
If you missed yesterday’s piece, I recommend going back and reading it before you press on with part two. Use this link to do that. If you don’t want to do that, here’s the short version.
The biggest tech breakthroughs organise large parts of the economy around them. This is usually because they involve a technology or technique that is flexible enough to be adapted to multiple uses – and spawn a whole ecosystem of related businesses around it.
Think about “the internet economy” – all the businesses that wouldn’t exist without the net. Or the “steam economy” – effectively everything that made up the advances of the Industrial Revolution. Or even further back: the “information economy” – the exchange of ideas and knowledge made possible by the printing press.
It’s the flexibility and adaptability of these technologies that make them so powerful. Today I want to tell you about “the gene editing economy” made possible by CRISPR.
If you’ve never heard of CRISPR before, today’s email will be a watershed moment for you. I think you’ll look back on it in a decade or two – when CRISPR has remade the world completely – and realise that today was the day you were introduced to the most powerful breakthrough tech of the century.
That’s simply because CRISPR gives humanity a power it has never had before. It will ultimately enable us to hack nature and remake the natural world the way we want it to be. Any living thing – and a lot of things that aren’t around any more, but once were – can be understood on a genetic level. We can decode life.
CRISPR enables us to edit that code – even to rewrite it. That’s a momentous power. Later in the week I’ll get around to discussing the downsides as well as the up.
But today, I want to focus on the sheer flexibility of CRISPR. If I’m right and the truly pivotal breakthroughs share a common quality – their adaptability – then CRISPR should also be able to be used as a multi-purpose tool, capable of being wielded in any number of powerful ways.
I want to prove that’s the case to you today. Let’s take a whistle-stop tour through the potential uses of CRISPR. We’ll focusing on what people are actually trying to prove, rather than just theoretical uses (which are infinite).
I’ll break this tour into two parts: reshaping the human body to fight disease and remaking the natural world.
If your unborn child had a gene that would cause some terrible disease, you’d do anything to cure it, right?
My son was born in February. He’s a healthy young lad (albeit with an appetite that genuinely concerns me financially). But had there been a genetic issue that doctors could have corrected – I’d have jumped at the chance.
That’s one way CRISPR can be used. If your genetic code has a disease causing flaw in it… scientists are figuring out how to correct that mistake, like a copy editor would correct my spelling mistakes in a note like this one.
There are several groundbreaking studies under way on this front. Using CRISPR to treat genetic blindness, cystic fibrosis and even to “cut” the AIDS virus out of immune cells’ DNA are all under way. Editas, one of the companies to claim the patent to CRISPR (long story), is one company researching this technique, focusing on blindness.
But that’s not the only way CRISPR can be adapted. Scientists are also using it to teach the body to fight cancer. To radically oversimply the science: certain forms of cancer are able to fool the immune system into not spotting them, and therefore not fighting them.
CRISPR could change that. By removing the body’s T-Cells and modifying their genetic code, researchers believe they can make the cells “see” the tumour again – and attack it.
This is already being tested in China, on patients with esophagus cancer. I’m watching that trial carefully – I lost an uncle earlier this year to cancer of the esophagus.
Because that’s what all this is really about, isn’t it? Hacking your genetic code and upgrading your body to make it much more able to fight or avoid disease can sound a little too sci-fi. But when it’s a loved one – a child, mother, father, uncle, friend – who’s suffering and gene editing could provide the answer, there’s no doubt in my mind that 99% of people would see CRISPR for what it is: a powerful tool for good.
But you and I aren’t the only things with genetic codes. Every living thing, from your family pet to the grass in your garden to the food on your table, has or had a genetic code. Therefore CRISPR promises much more than simply a medically revolution – as I said, it’s more adaptive that that…
The natural world, remade
Take something like rice yield. Rice is a staple crop for nearly half the planet. And with the population of the Earth expected to hit 9 million by 2050, finding ways to increase food production is critical.
Which reminds me, any time I write about a technology that could vastly improve people’s lifespans or survival rates, thus leading to an increase in population, I get one or two predictable responses.
To paraphrase, these emails usually say, “There are too many people on the planet already, we need to reduce the surplus population, not increase it.”
To which I usually reply, “I agree. Let’s start with your street, shall we?”
Arguments against murder aside, my original point was that CRISPR can help reshape the natural world, starting with seemingly mundane things like crop yield.
Again, China leads the way here. Researchers have found a way to tweak the genetic code of rice plants, leading to a 25%-31% increase in yield. If that’s possible, less than a decade after CRISPR’s discovery, where might the exponential growth curve lead? I’ll put that one to Frontier Tech Investor editor Eoin Treacy next time I speak to him.
Researchers in Japan have been trying to figure out ways of creating seedless fruit – thus dispensing with the need for pollination. Sounds esoteric, but bees are dying out. Sounds even more esoteric, but most fruit still requires bees to pollinate it. No need for pollination, no need for bees, more secure food chain. Not great for the bees getting automated out of the workforce, admittedly.
I’ll leave you with perhaps the most controversial use of CRISPR I know of. So far. It’s a project that could save billions of lives over time. But it requires gene editing to be taken to its absolute, logical conclusion.
The disease that has killed more people than any other in human history is malaria. In fact, according to Rosemary Drisdelle, author of Parasites: Tales of Humanity’s Most Unwelcome Guests, malaria could have accounted for – on average – more than 5 million deaths a year for thousands of years.
Add those deaths up and you reach a pretty grim conclusion: malaria may well have been responsible for 50% of all deaths in human history. In her own words:
Did malaria kill between 53 and 54 billion of the 96 billion who lived before 1900? I’m neither an epidemiologist nor a statistician… We’ll never know for sure, but based on my reading I think it’s possible.
And it still kills huge numbers of people today. According to UNICEF figures, it kills 1 million people every year. A large number of them are children – 3,000 a day. And 40% of the world’s population live in areas at risk of malaria. Fighting it is easily one of the greatest challenges facing the world.
But how do you fight it? With drugs? Better healthcare? Netting for every bed in an at-risk area?
That’s one way of thinking about it. But advances in technology have opened another way of doing things. You can go for the source – the mosquitos that spread the disease.
Well, therein lies the controversy. Because there’s now a fairly advanced movement under way to edit the genetics of mosquitos so that their offspring become sterile. Sterile offspring could mean no more mosquitos. No more mosquitos could mean the end of malaria.
Is it right for humans to decide what lives and what dies? To a certain extent, we do already. We’ve hunted countless species out of existence.
But to do it from the laboratory – to alter the DNA of another living being with the intention of wiping it from the face of the Earth – that’s different. That alone is enough to make the head hurt. But then you have to factor in the fact that the goal is to save millions upon millions of people from a deadly disease.
The ability to alter the genetic makeup of something – plant, animal, human – gives us the power to remake the world as we want it to be.
I’ll return to the moral implications of this later in the week. But I’d like to think I’ve made the case for CRISPR purely in terms of its adaptability – and that is what gives it its enormous potential.
As I said yesterday, I dedicated two whole chapters of my book, The Exponentialist, to the technology. I even interviewed one of the people who helped develop the technique.
I believe an understanding of CRISPR is vital to anyone… and could be hugely lucrative for visionary, long-term investors. Whoever you are, you need to know about this. You can get a free copy of my book here – for a limited time only.
Publisher, Exponential Investor