By this point, most people are aware of the new technologies which produced millions of lifesaving COVID vaccines using mRNA and the critical importance of the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR, in bringing these amazing results to the fore. But the COVID story is only the tip of the science that can incredibly change our lives in the not-too-distant future.
Crucial in effectively using such new technologies is to have science make the One health approach a priority to improve health and security. That there is a sound basis for doing so is well documented via the One Health Initiative; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the One Health Commission, and the proceedings of several International One Health Congresses.
As embraced by many visionary advocates:
“One Health is the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals, plants and our environment.” “One Health implementation will help protect and/or save untold millions of lives in our generation and for those to come.”
Thus, with the advent of synthetic biology, each element of the animal/plant/human/ecosystem interface can look to its horizon for important changes, ones that will have the impact of dramatically affecting us all.
Indeed, these are much like the early days in recognizing the health benefits of handwashing, in how to manipulate molecules, engineer microorganisms, or build biocomputing systems. As with the space age and the internet in the last century, each began with what now appears as primitive initial efforts, followed by unbelievably rapid improvement. This is well described and much of the information which follows comes from “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” by Amy Webb with microbiologist Andrew Hessel.
Synthetic biology is the term used to define an emerging field of science involving the redesign of organisms, including at the gene level, to solve problems in everything from medicine to manufacturing and agriculture.
As Amy Webb says in the above video, there are great opportunities in this new field of science but there are also serious risks that cannot be ignored and need to be addressed. Let us peak inside the synthetic biology window from a One Health perspective, and see what might be – focusing here on the positive side, looking at some of the global public health, animal, and environmental problems synthetic biology can help solve.
Public health problems that can be addressed in humans through synthetic biology
- Heritable diseases: Roughly thousands of heritable diseases originate from a single gene, including sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis. These are gene mutations that can be corrected, and the edited cells brought back to health. While these are not infectious diseases, they are useful in reminding us how CRISPR technology could address and modify genes that make one person more susceptible to an infectious disease, a disease likely with animal origins. Just to bring it to the current pandemic, we do not know why one person comes down with COVID while their partner does not, but probably one possibility is differentiated genes.
- Mobile machines to test for a virus or bacteria: Portable sequencing machines already determine the existence of a virus or bacteria, and could in the future provide the pathway for real-time medications to deal with them.
- Assessing responses to viruses or medications in the lab: Because it is difficult to test how living human tissue responds to viruses and medications, the ability now to grow customized human tissue in laboratories, such as lung and brain tissue, allows observation of these and other organs as they are infected with a virus. This has a major benefit in reducing the time it takes to test new vaccines or drugs, without risking people and going through ethical approval requirements which take a great deal of time.
- Treatments for cancer: There are possibilities to provide customized immunotherapies for different forms of cancers such as ovarian, breast cancer, and melanoma. Indeed, cancer vaccines are being researched, inter alia, by the companies that brought mRNA COVID vaccines rapidly to approval and production
Addressing problems in animals
- Mosquitos: These kill hundreds of thousands, many often children, and do so with multiple diseases. The most deadly has been malaria, and while there has been some progress in developing a vaccine, it is a lengthy procedure to achieve immunization, which is difficult in the many developing countries where it exists. Geneticists at the Imperial College of London have used gene-editing technology to modify female mosquito physiology so they cannot bite, cannot lay eggs, and therefore cannot spread the malaria parasite.
- Pig farming: Chinese scientists are developing “super pigs” that are stronger, mature more quickly and are fortified with a gene that regulates body heat so they can stay out longer in winter locations.
- Cattle Enhancement: A breed of cattle, Belgian Blues, has an extra gene that suppresses a gene that normally inhibits muscle growth, thereby providing the animal brought to market with significantly more meat. Researchers can now improve the genotypes not just of this breed, but other mammals.
Addressing environmental issues
- Agriculture: It is possible to turn bacteria into plant food using CRISPR to improve seeds and heighten protein content, with the added advantage of relying on the plant’s ability to be solar fed. This process could produce enormous crop yields without the environmentally damaging effects associated with chemical fertilizer.
- Livestock: Shifting from the way traditional meat is grown to lab-designed efforts for cultured meat, could be done for the full range of beef, poultry, pigs, and fish. By some estimates, this would require between 35-60% less energy, occupy 98% less land, and produce 80-95% fewer greenhouse gases than conventional animals farmed for consumption.
- Food safety: Synthetic biology offers the potential for greater global food supply safety. Globally about 600 million people are sick from contaminated food, per World Health Organization estimates. Research is looking into developing the possibility of using genetic barcodes before food enters the supply chain to trace potential risks.
- Biofuels: Using algae with gene editing, they are a future potential source of fuel. While the current shift is to electric vehicles, there are raw material costs and supplier risks that could, in due course, make this alternative commercially attractive.
- Carbon dioxide: It is a, if not the major contributor to climate change. There is a raft of efforts underway to devise biological solutions. For example, genetically engineering trees and lawns to better absorb CO2 would help; another would be to synthesize jellyfish mucus to trap microplastics, or as a filter in wastewater treatment plants.
Such benefits from synthetic biology must be seen through a One Health prism in order to capture the possibilities that the international science and technology communities are working on in many fields.
As with any breakthrough technology, there are inherent risks and ethical challenges. It means we should be receptive to momentous change, but, at the same time, make sure there are guardrails in place. It may be this challenge that is even more difficult to solve than the technology, given the lack of global consensus and compliance on so many things.
Paradoxically the COVID-19 pandemic has had a providential side-effect: It has accelerated worldwide recognition that a One Health approach is the best prescription for more expeditious and efficacious public health innovations. Simply put, all aspects of future biomedical advances are likely to benefit from a One Health interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary approach.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — Featured Photo: graphics captured during the session “The Potential of Synthetic Biology with the European Research Council” in the Congress Centre at the Annual Meeting 2015 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 23, 2015 Source: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/Jakob Polacsek Flickr (cc)