Only by working together can governments, scientists, businesses, and the public unleash the power of biology for good while effectively managing the risks, write Matthias Evers and Michael Chui in Project Syndicate.
Last November, the world cheered the news that three gene-based COVID-19 vaccines – one developed by German biotech company BioNTech in collaboration with Pfizer, another by US-based biotech firm Moderna, and a third by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca – had proved effective in clinical trials. But in October, researchers revealed that off-target effects of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool used to repair a blindness-causing gene in the early stages of human embryo development often eliminated an entire chromosome or a large part of it.
The two announcements, coming just a month apart, illustrate the promise and peril of biological engineering.
As a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) makes clear, current breakthroughs in biological science and advanced data analytics could help us solve major human challenges, from reducing climate risk and strengthening food security to fighting pandemics. But realizing the revolution’s potentially huge benefits will require us to think carefully about how to mitigate the potentially severe risks.
The scope of today’s bio-innovation wave is large. Some 60% of physical inputs to the world economy are either already biological, or could be produced using biological processes in the future. Nylon, for example, can already be made using genetically-engineered yeast, rather than petrochemicals. Many such “bioroutes” to production potentially will use less energy and water, and generate fewer greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. Just 400 biological applications currently in the pipeline could reduce annual average GHG emissions by as much as 9% by 2050.
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