Wielding the power of DNA will result in opportunities worth trillions of dollars – if you know where to look
The past two weeks have demonstrated the power of DNA in two tangible ways, making it feel like science fiction is coming to life, as opposed to the fictional (and scientifically impossible) portrayal of the power of DNA in pop culture.
First, there was the announcement out of China that a researcher was, allegedly, able to use CRISPR gene editing to disable the CCR5 gene in twin baby girls, with the intention of making them immune to HIV. The details surrounding this story are murky and continue to evolve, but the bioethical Pandora’s box has now been opened. It wasn’t ever a question whether this box could be opened, but I am surprised at how soon it happened.
Second, there was the nearly unheard-of blanket recall of all romaine lettuce produced in the U.S. due to contamination with E. coli and an inability in the existing food safety system to track down the source of the contamination. This recall resulted in an unprecedented – and incredibly speedy – agreement between the FDA and industry leaders like Fresh Express, Dole, and Taylor Farms to voluntarily include the growth region and harvest date on the label for all romaine lettuce.
We typically see these types of occurrences in Hollywood blockbuster movies; think “Jurassic Park,” “Rampage,” “Gattaca,” or even James Bond, where one of the villains changed his face in minutes – purportedly by editing his DNA. Let’s be clear – the “science” in these movies is deeply flawed. DNA can’t actually violate the laws of physics or biology. However, there are legitimate, big-revenue opportunities in wielding the power of DNA… if you know how to do it and where to look. If you don’t, your business will be disrupted by DNA-powered product enhancements, likely in some surprising ways.
You need four basic skills to use DNA: reading, analyzing, writing, and editing. You do not need to have all four of these skills in-house. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, partnering or outsourcing for all or some of these skills is likely the best course of action. But these skills are required, so be thoughtful about making the right decisions here.
If your company participates in any aspect of the food, health, and wellness value chain, consider the potential of DNA in every manufacturing or product development scenario you are evaluating for improved margins or increased product performance… starting NOW. My definition of this value chain includes production agriculture, food ingredients, food products, and consumer impact, each a trillion-dollar sector.
One linear, fairly obvious opportunity is to use DNA in production agriculture to create new products that would never occur in nature but provide excellent health benefits or product features. One example here is the pink pineapple, produced by Del Monte, which contains lycopene, a nutrient never found in pineapples in nature. Another example is a strain of wild tomato that was domesticated in a single generation using a multiplexed CRISPR approach, saving approximately $100 million and nine years of product development, to create a product with increased size, fruit count, and nutritional value.
Another opportunity, this time in food products, addresses the challenges of meeting shifting consumer demands for sustainable, healthy, plant-based foods. Thinking of cells as factories in miniature and DNA as product specifications, “cellular agriculture” methods can yield meat and meat like products from plant-based starting materials, in some cases completely independent of actual animals.
If we look out a bit further, DNA will power a revolution in personalization and point-of-use (POU) sensing across the food and health value chain. Ubiquitous, cheap, fast, accurate sensing is coming. Make food safety a continuous process rather than batch-based and look for options that yield real-time results. Back to the romaine recall; could this have been prevented if packing houses (or even grocers?) had in-line spoilage and pathogenic microorganism sensing? It may sound far-fetched, but the tech to make it possible is in development now, and the cost will almost certainly be smaller than current recall management budgets. It’s time to think of DNA as a traceable fingerprint in and on all of your products. You can either use it to your advantage or get caught flat-footed and have it become a liability.
My parting thoughts are these: Your business WILL be disrupted by the power of DNA. You can either embrace it or wait for it to become a liability. My advice is to take a page out of Hollywood and employ a broader, more creative perspective in your organization’s strategic planning to avoid being blindsided… and maybe make a trillion dollars in the process.