From the oil industry to the pharmaceutical sector, biotechnology is now emerging as an indispensable element of Research & Development at the world’s leading companies.
The term ‘biotechnology’ started to become widespread in the 1980s when it first became feasible to transfer genetic information from one living system to another. Speaking at the Biotechnologies session of the Innovation Connecting Show (ICS) which took place on 16-18 September in the French city of Toulouse, Pierre Monsan, founder of the Toulouse White Biotechnology research centre, recalled how in the early 2000s it became increasingly possible for small laboratories to sequence the human genome. Today’s synthetic biology differs in its methodology, but it has not deviated from the basic principle: acting on living organisms by manipulating their genetic make-up.
Industrial giants investing in biotech
Pierre Monsan told the ICS audience that the two major areas of biotechnology research today are the field of applied medicine, mainly with a view to treating cancerous cells, and also the energy sector. On the medical front, one example is how biotechnology – specifically DNA sequencing – is central to the work being done by researchers at Massachusetts-based clinical stage biopharmaceutical company Epizyme to analyse the different types of cancer. In general terms, “we can now identify all pathological risks because we can obtain more accurate knowledge of people’s genetic legacy,” explained Monsan. Meanwhile in the energy field, oil major Total has forged a number of partnerships with research institutes as part of its strategy of converting to ‘clean’ energy. Alongside solar power techniques, biotech is at the forefront of research – for example to synthesise biomass using synthetic molecules – dubbed ‘cell factories’ – which considerably speed up the growth process.
Future biology: emphasis on synthesis
However, unlike the computing field, biotechnology does not follow a ‘Moore’s Law’. There is a technical substratum that is absolutely fundamental if biotech is to fulfil its promise of disrupting entire sectors of the economy. As their science starts to take centre stage in industry investment, the biotechnology specialists are becoming increasingly dependent on progress – and bottlenecks – in advanced maths and computing. Pierre Monsan underlined that “the need for high performing algorithms to model the chaotic phenomena of living things will be a major challenge for biological research in the coming years.” This is already central to the work of the Group led by Huimin Zhao at the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering of the University of Illinois in the USA. While most components of the antibiotics in use today by the medical profession are of natural origin, the Illinois Biological Foundry research programme brings together both mathematicians and biologists to develop algorithms that will lead to the synthesis of new molecules.