“Early in the 20th century, we had the revolution in physics with Albert Einstein and the nuclear bomb. Then came the revolution of information technology in the late 20th century, and now we are living the revolution in biology,” says Dr. Vardit Ravitsky, President of the International Association of Bioethics.
Deemed the “bio revolution” by scientists and economists, Canadians and the world are now entering into an unprecedented era of scientific breakthroughs in biology, empowered by the interdisciplinary application of the principles of engineering, computational technologies and artificial intelligence, and new disciplines like miniaturization and genomics.
If this sounds complex to you, do not be disheartened—it is an area of the Canadian economy that is understood best by researchers and scientists. But Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President & CEO of Ontario Genomics, simplified the process:
“In a nutshell, we are using the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing machine—biology, specifically cells—as mini factories to make proteins, enzymes, and a whole host of materials,” she says. The cell, invisible to the human eye but containing the fundamental components of all living things, has the power to transform economies across the globe through these new innovations.
A McKinsey report from last year, predicted that “as much as 60 percent of the physical inputs to the global economy could be produced biologically.” These inputs include bioplastics, biofuels, and other bio-based materials, while one-third of that input would be traditional biological products like wood and wheat. The direct economic impact on the global economy could be $4 trillion in 10 to 20 years—but equally as promising is the potential to use bioengineering and biomanufacturing to address the world issues of climate change, health, and hunger.
“Synthetic biology and bioengineering have the potential to meet a lot of the global challenges that we are facing right now in Canada but also globally,” says Dr. Keith Pardee, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. “This could include the environment. Biomanufacturing inherently has a low carbon footprint, using aqueous chemistries which makes it more environmentally sustainable. It encompasses health and food security—the bioeconomy can really support that.”
Countries across the world, particularly within the G20, are investing heavily into the bioeconomy, including the United States, the UK and China. And the scientists we spoke to argue that Canada must make substantial investments as well.
“For the government, this is the time to invest in the bioeconomy and change Canada from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy,” says Dr. Lakshmi Krishnan, Vice President of Life Sciences at the National Research Council. “Bioengineering, synthetic biology, and biomanufacturing are three areas that are going to be extremely lucrative for Canada to take a leading edge in.”
Dr. Radhakrishnan Mahadevan, also a professor at the University of Toronto, points out that we have many of the foundations already in place—research and development, strengths in genomics, AI and machine learning—but we lack infrastructure, and critically, a national strategy.
“There is a common sense that what we really need to do now is figure out collectively where the real opportunities are and how we can marshal the resources and the energies required in order to make serious advances,” says Dr. Rob Annan, President & CEO of Genome Canada.
Without a national strategy, Canada risks being left behind. With the bio revolution now upon us, the government must act quickly to create a pan-Canadian framework so that Canada can succeed and lead in the fourth industrial revolution.
We hope you enjoy the long weekend, and stay with TheFutureEconomy.ca for more science in translation in the months to come!