A Spur to the Biotech Century Ahead; The effort to defeat the coronavirus will focus the attention of a new generation of scientific pioneers

26 Mar 2020 | Wall Street Journal | by Walter Isaacson.

The coronavirus plague will hasten our transition to the third great innovation revolution of modern times. These revolutions arose from the discovery, beginning just over a century ago, of the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit and the gene.

The first half of the 20th century, beginning with Albert Einstein's 1905 papers on relativity and quantum theory, featured a revolution driven by physics. Advances in basic science became, as always, the seed corn from which sprang useful inventions. In the five decades following Einstein's miracle year, his theories and those of his fellow physicists led to atomic bombs and nuclear power, semiconductors and transistors, spaceships and GPS, lasers and radar.

After the Pandemic

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The second half of the 20th century was an information-technology era, based on the idea that all information could be encoded by binary digits—known as bits—and all logical processes could be performed by circuits with on-off switches. In the 1950s, this led to the development of the microchip, the computer and the internet. When these three innovations were combined, it led to the digital revolution.

Now we have entered a third and even more momentous scientific era, a life-science revolution driven by biotech. It rests on the discovery of the gene and the molecules (DNA and RNA) that contain and implement its information. By the beginning of this century, we had the power to sequence and map our genes and those of every organism.

One particularly consequential invention in this new revolution is CRISPR, a tool that will allow us to edit genes. Like most inventions, it was born out of curiosity-driven basic science, in this case involving the longest-running and most vicious war on this planet. For three billion years, bacteria have struggled to fight off attacks by viruses, which are snippets of genetic material that reproduce by taking over the cells of living organisms. CRISPR systems are a wondrous method that bacteria came up with to remember, recognize and destroy the genetic material of enemy viruses.

Which leads us to our own fight against the new coronavirus. CRISPR tools are already being developed that will detect the virus and, eventually, ward it off. But in a larger way, the coronavirus will focus the attention of a new generation of scientists and innovators. Just as the digital revolution drove innovation in the last half of the 20th century, the biotech revolution will drive the first half of the 21st century. Children who study digital coding will be surpassed by those who study the code of life.

The revolution will have at least three major components. First is an effort to fight viruses at the molecular level using RNA-guided genetic targeting devices (just like bacteria do). Our recurring viral plagues—MERS, SARS, Ebola, HIV/AIDS and of course each new strain of the flu—show how pitifully poor we have been at this. Second is discovering the underlying mechanisms of cancer and finding ways to personalize treatments for it. And third is editing our own genes.

Gene-editing technology could make us immune to viruses and cancer. It can correct mutations that cause a wide array of disabilities, from sickle-cell anemia to congenital blindness. And it could let us genetically enhance our bodies and minds and those of our children. That will be the hard part. We'll need not only scientists and innovators but also philosophers, humanists and well-informed citizens to figure out whether that's a wise use of this astonishing technology.

Mr. Isaacson is the author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.

Credit: By Walter Isaacson


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