Since 2007, the cost of sequencing genomes has declined 50% faster per year than the cost of computers. Plummeting sequencing costs have been due to a combination of Moore’s law and massive scaleups. Juan Enriquez is an author and an expert on the life sciences industry. He runs a venture capital fund that invests in life science startups that could produce useful products and treatments within the next five years, and also engages in more long-term forecasting. In an interview for Next Big Future with Sander Olson, Enriquez discusses the exponential rate of change for biotechnology, and why he believes that the changes wrought by the biosciences during the next three decades could surpass the industrial revolution in importance.
Question: Tell us about Biotechonomy
I am involved with both businesses. In my day job I work at Excel Venture Management, which is a venture capital fund aimed at life science projects. We are currently investing in about 17 companies. At Biotechonomy I do long-term research and speaking.
Question: Your book, As the future catches you, was first published in 2001. If you were to update that book now, what changes would you make?
I just published a new book dealing with a series of omics that didn’t exist when I wrote As the Future Catches You. I now understand that we are increasingly manipulating the genomes of a wide variety of microbes, plant life, and animals. As a result of these manipulations we as a species are going to be taking direct and deliberate control of our evolution.
Question: You seem to be envisioning a world very different from the evolutionary process as described by Darwin.
In Darwin’s world, the environment guides speciation. In the 21st century world, humans will purposefully control the process. This process is already well underway – 70% of the grains consumed in North America are genetically modified. We have modified wolves to become dogs, and poisonous green berries to become heirloom tomatoes. In each case we are changing genetics to suit our needs.
Question: How long before we begin directly altering human genes?
We are already doing this. There have been a series of articles on the human biome, and microbial cells outnumber human cells by a hundred to one. It is not evolutionarily common for a human to be exposed to microbes from India, China, and the U.S. in one week. But this is now commonplace, so we are conducting experiments that are unprecedented in our history.
Question: You have noted that the pace of advance in bioengineering is much greater than that of electronics, particularly since 2007. How do you explain the incredible growth that has occurred in gene sequencing since 2007?
The price decreases have been absolutely staggering. During the past 30 years Moore’s law has been empowering the economy, but the technology of genomics is now decreasing 50% faster per year than computer prices. We are now accumulating biodata 50% faster than we can store it. This information will be available sooner than most people realize, and on a scale that is unimaginable.
Question: Does scaleup primarily account for these incredible price reductions?
Scaleup is a key factor, along with Moore’s law and the fact that biological systems scale faster than electronics systems.
Question: You claim that humanity is transitioning towards a new species. Homo Evolutis. What will this new species look like? What capabilities might it have?
Over the last century we have doubled the lifespan of individuals. Our lifespans will substantially lengthen, we will increasingly infuse our bodies with more and more technology, and we will alter our brains by continually cramming more and more information into them.
Question: So these will be a combination of superficial and more fundamental changes?
People are clearly larger and taller than we were. Our intelligence levels are probably being altered. Our ability to focus on tasks may be changing. Humans actually look quite different than they did several hundred years ago.
Question: Some are predicting that Moore’s law may end soon. If they are correct, how will that affect the genomics revolution?
People have been predicting the demise of Moore’s law for decades. I am confident that Moore’s law has a ways to go, but even though Moore’s law will continue it won’t be able to keep up with the deluge of data being generated by genomics. We may have to return to an earlier mindset where concise code was at a premium. Some modern data centers consume as much electricity as a full-sized city. So more efficient computing techniques will need to be found.
Question: You have said that “the ability to understand and apply gene research is probably the greatest single discontinuity we have seen since the industrial revolution.” Are you saying that the economic, technological, and social impact of gene research could equal that of the industrial revolution?
I am confident that the changes wrought by the genomics revolution will greatly exceed those of the industrial revolution. This is already happening – 40% of Dupont’s and 14% of GEs earnings are coming from the Life Sciences. Sebastian Sung at MIT has noted that to map the brain would require about 1.8 zettabytes of information.
Question: Do you believe that the computer industry will ever be able to provide 1.8 zettabytes at a reasonable cost?
These requirements will only spur the IT industry towards greater innovation. Thirty years ago, the idea that one could buy multi-terabyte drives was unimaginable. We will soon see petabyte scale computing, and we can plot the approximate date that a detailed, accurate map of the entire human brain will be unveiled. When this happens, it will be an even more important accomplishment than the sequencing of the human genome.
Question: What country outside the U.S. has the greatest potential to become a genomics powerhouse?
China, Britain, Singapore, and Korea all could become genomics powerhouses. Europe has a plethora of smart scientists, but in order to succeed a concentrated ecosystem needs to exist. One finds such an ecosystem in Silicon Valley, Cambridge, and Maryland. One doesn’t currently find such an ecosystem anywhere in Europe.
Question: In your job you concentrate on technologies that could affect the world within the next decade. What short-term technology excites you the most?
In my day job, I concentrate on viable technological developments during the next five years. Peptides could open up entirely new drug treatment therapies within the next five years. Peptides are like keys, they have to be exactly the right shape in order to work properly. I am also excited by the potential of next-generation antibiotics, as well as the potential of the first synthetic cells.
Question: And what about long-term technologies. If you had to bet on a technology that would change the world within the next 30 years, what would you pick?
The engineering of human bodies will bring about the biggest changes that humanity has ever seen. It isn’t one technology, but rather the synergy of many interacting technologies. We will start to see one or several new species of humans emerge. Within the next thirty years sentient, intelligent lifeforms that are noticeably different than homo sapiens will emerge, and this will utterly transform every aspect of society.