It’s Biotech time

Just as digital is changing everything, we’re also changing digital. Take ‘biotech’ for example (think genetics, neural networks, biohackers) – which applies natural processes to the digital world. You could argue that the lines between human and machine are blurring. Are you up for it?

Actually, I’m a bit scared.

No fear, the Reply R20 is here, with 20 links to what’s next in tech. The first one is from research and consultancy firm Gartner. They identified five emerging technology trends that will blur the lines between human and machine. Besides blockchain, quantum computing and smart fabrics, one of them is ‘Do-It-Yourself Biohacking’, where biology is hacked based on lifestyle, interests and health needs.

What is Biohacking, exactly?

A good example, is where thousands of people in Sweden are implanting microchips under their skin to replace ID cards and make their daily lives easier. People with the implants can wave their hand to access their office or gym – no key cards needed. Biohacking is on the rise as more people turn to wearable technology and interconnected devices. This started years ago and it’s involving businessmen, students and entrepreneurs. And if you think it’s a passing trend, have a look at the story of a 29-year-old man paralyzed by a snowmobile accident in 2013. He’s now walking again thanks to a device that delivers electrical stimulation to his spine.

Can I implant a microchip in my hand?

Yes, at your own risk. Ecommerce site, DangerousThings, offers a DIY kit to become a cyborg with an NFC tag. Watch out though, as there’s a dispute about data protection and where information is stored. If you want to try something less invasive, you could start with CRISPR gene editing technique.

CRISPR?

The term CRISPR/Cas9 stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9. It’s a system found in bacteria and involved in immune defence: bacteria use CRISPR/Cas9 to cut up the DNA of invading bacterial viruses that might otherwise kill them. Today, we’ve adapted this molecular machinery for an entirely different purpose – to change any chosen letter(s) in an organism’s DNA code. We might want to correct an inherited disease, or enhance the genetic code of crops, livestock or even people. Cas9 is the technical name for the virus-destroying ‘scissors’ in bacteria. The CRISPR refers to the repeat DNA sequences that form a complex system that tells the scissors which part of the DNA to cut. Find, cut and paste, at a molecular level. Want to give it a go?

Are you serious?

You can easily buy a CRISPR DIY kit and start playing God by transforming some bacteria in bio-luminescent material. Or buy a portable DNA and RNA real-time sequencing device and join a growing community passionate about pathogen analysis and environmental research.

This is definitely not my cup of tea!

Every scientist and engineer had to start somewhere! If it seems too hard, you can learn how to become a bioartist or a genetic engineer thanks to Amino kits. This project, supported by ground-breaking technology and UX out of MIT, makes genetic engineering accessible to everyone. The easy-to-use kits (for 8-year-olds and upwards) are fuelling the next generation of genetic engineers. And if you’re still not convinced that change is coming, trust Raymond McCauley, founder of BioCurious hacker space and Chair of the Biotechnology at Singularity University. He says, “The biotechnology revolution is about where the computer revolution was in 1980, but instead of personal computers, 21st century whizz-kids are tinkering with what makes bacteria tick. This kind of fun and creative play sets up future scientists to cure diseases, save the environment, and feed the world. The future belongs to kids, and the DNA Playground is a tool to help them get good at creating it.”

The biotechnology revolution is about where the computer revolution was in 1980, but instead of personal computers, 21st century whizz-kids are tinkering with what makes bacteria tick.” Raymond McCauley

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Seems a bit too futuristic

Wrong. Biotech is full of opportunity for businesses too. Think about Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies. They announced a partnership to apply AI to decode the immune system to diagnose and treat disease. The human immune system is an astonishing diagnostic system, continuously adapting itself to detect any sign of disease in the body. Essentially, the state of the immune system tells a story about virtually everything affecting a person’s health. What if we could “read” this story? Our scientific understanding of human health would be fundamentally advanced. And more importantly, this would provide a foundation for a new generation of precise medical diagnostic and treatment options.

Learning to decode the immune system to diagnose disease. Source: Microsoft blog.

Is it just about health?

Not at all. Traceability allows you to track a product through the various stage of the supply chain – from production to processing to distribution. Today’s most widely used technologies (barcodes and RFID) help optimise the operational efficiency of supply, production, distribution and sales processes. Companies like Prooftag, Digimarc and AMS are working to disrupt these traditional tracking technologies. Imagine if we could use DNA to mark and track goods: biotagging and advanced traceability are the next big thing in supply chain and manufacturing. Meet Safetraces, Identigen and Agroisolab, three different companies exploring new ways to track the origin of food and goods through DNA tagging directly.

This is the future!

So you’d better prepare for it! At Reply, we’ve already started. We’ve got students from five leading universities in Italy, Germany, Netherlands and UK working on Biotech and Advanced Traceability. Imagine, 250 students and tons of project proposals in an idea-generation marathon focused on one of the most exciting topics ever. Enjoy the highlights video and keep following Reply!


Cover pic: Unsplash

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