The last 20 years has been marked by the steady development of information technology – from the graphical interface, through the development of the floppy disk and the PC era to the internet, the cloud, mobile and, more recently, new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.
Over the coming decade we will see similar progress in biology as it moves from being a science to an engineering discipline. Just as the semiconductor was developed in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s, so what will happen over the coming decade in biology will reshape our world through it becoming a computational domain.
While it’s true that a system that has taken billions of years to evolve is vastly complex, breakthroughs such as CRISPR, genomics and the application of machine learning to detect cancers will enable researchers to bring an engineering mindset to biology. For instance, modern medicine has largely used surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and drugs to treat cancer. In the past few years, however, immunotherapy – which enhances the body’s own immune system to fight tumours – has been used in trials with success. Two Car T-Cell therapies for treating leukemia have been approved by the FDA in the US, and other forms of immunotherapy are demonstrating promise.
One of the benefits of applying an engineering approach is that disciplines such as materials, chemical, electrical, mechanical and data bring new approaches. And not only to medicine. As professor and investor Vijay Pande notes in our annual trends report, the WIRED World in 2020, biology is being reengineered to transform the way we produce food – from nonotechnology being applied to create protective ‘peel’ on fruit to plant-based ‘meat’, manufacturing processes are being designed using nature’s own processes to address global problems such as food waste, overfishing and the toxic side-effects of industrial agriculture. Beyond this, bioengineering can be applied to create new materials and to even ‘grow’ buildings. Bioengineering as a discipline is set to bloom.
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