Underrated Problems in Biotechnology

Biotechnology is the most important technology that humankind has ever wielded. But if you want to make an impact, expand your view to things outside of health.

I think that biotechnology, or the ability to manipulate and control living systems, is the most important technology that humankind has ever wielded.

When most people think about biotechnology, though, they think of health. Cell and gene therapies, weight-loss medicines and vaccines are all marvelous creations, but life is far broader than us. If you want to make an “outsized impact” in biotechnology, try to broaden your view. Many problems in climate, forestry, agriculture and materials are waiting for solutions, but not enough people are working to solve them.

In this “snapshot” essay, I introduce three problems that I think are particularly underrated. If solved, each would improve the lives of billions of people or animals.

The first underrated problem is chick culling. Every year, about 6 billion day-old male chicks are killed in the egg industry. Their bodies are tossed into a macerator, simply because they can’t lay eggs. Europe has begun to implement in ovo sexing technology that can determine the sex of an egg before it hatches, thus making it possible to destroy chicks before they can feel pain. But this technology is not yet used in America. A key challenge is to determine an egg’s sex before it reaches day 13, when they can begin to feel pain, and to test eggs so cheaply such that egg prices do not increase too much and scare away consumers.

The second underrated problem is synthetic apomixis. A typical farmer in India makes about 180 U.S. dollars per month, a large portion of which is used to buy hybrid seeds from Syngenta, Bayer, or Biostadt India. Hybrid rice is 10-20 percent bigger than even the best inbred strains. But in low- or middle-income nations, less than half of farmers can afford to plant these special seeds, which are made by painstakingly taking pollen from one crop and using it to fertilize another. Hybrid seeds are also only good for one year and cannot be replanted. Today, researchers are working to make engineered plants that can produce clonal offspring without fertilization. If successful, farmers could buy hybrid seeds once, and grow them forever, thus increasing their income and yields. This technology would uplift millions of the world’s poorest. It would probably be the biggest agricultural breakthrough since the invention of hybrid rice in the 1970s.

The third underrated problem is tree engineering. It takes anywhere from 15-25 years to breed a new generation of trees, and there are perhaps “a few hundred tree geneticists in the entire world,” according to expert Jack Wang. CRISPR is making it simpler to engineer trees that can fix more carbon, or that have a higher carbohydrate-to-lignin ratio to reduce the number of trees needed to make paper. But not enough people are working on these problems, even though engineered trees may be our best option to protect forests from wildfires and rising temperatures in this century.

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