Monday, October 18, 2010

The State of the Bioeconomy

This is based on the book Biology Is Technology by Robert H. Carlson. The author provides an interesting and revealing glimpse into a set of technologies that seem to be exploding in capability. Besides the obvious medical applications, this expansion in skills and knowledge is rapidly being incorporated into novel commercial schemes with some products beginning to appear, and many more just over the horizon.

A 2007 estimate of the size of the biotechnology sector of the U.S. economy was $200-250 billion annually. Growth rates in the various components were in the 10-20% range. While this is not a large fraction of a $14 trillion economy, it is a component that is larger than one might have expected, it is one with enormous growth potential, and it is a technology area in which the U.S. still competes. Carlson provides the following breakdown.
“As of 2007 biotech drugs accounted for about $79 billion in sales worldwide, with about 85% of that in the United States. Genetically modified crops accounted for about $128 billion, with 54% of that in the United States. Industrial applications (including fuels, chemicals, materials, reagents, and services) contributed another $70 billion to $100 billion in the United States, depending on who was counting and how.”
The author divides the pharmaceutical industry into what he refers to as “small molecule” drugs and “biologics.” The small molecule products come from traditional chemistry techniques. The biologics originate with organic molecules. The number provided above only refers to the biologic component of the industry.

The biologic components are becoming more pervasive in the pharmaceutical industry. Much of the testing of drugs now involves characterizing cellular response at a molecular level. Carlson also anticipates that the next generation of drugs will be more focused on catering to an individual’s genetic makeup.
“Approvals of new small molecule drugs have fallen by about 30 percent over the last decade, despite a doubling in R&D spending and increased identification of new candidate drugs.”

“One strategy in the face of declining new-drug approval is to focus on the segment of the population in which drugs have a higher likelihood of being effective, an emerging branch of health-care called ‘personalized medicine.’ This tailoring of treatment to the individual relies on the field of ‘pharmacogenomics.’ which aims to tailor therapies according to an individual’s genetic makeup....Only 25 percent of new drugs are targeted to chronic, ongoing diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure, ‘suggesting the pipeline is shifting toward targeted therapies’.”
Genetically modified (GM) crops are common, but still constitute a small part of the total agricultural industry. They are also controversial—being banned in some regions and embraced in others. GM crops have been successful in producing hardier and more productive versions of plants, but until all the legal and psychological issues are resolved, the industry will not meet its true growth potential.
“As of 2007, 114 million hectares of GM crops had been planted worldwide, on about 9 percent of the worldwide total for cultivated land, with a worldwide value of more than $100 billion. GM acreage has been growing globally at just over 10 percent each year for the last decade, with 54 percent of GM crops planted in the United States; in 2007, among staples worldwide, GM crops accounted for 61 percent of corn, 83 percent of cotton, and 89 percent of soy. In the United States, in 2007, GM crops accounted for 73 percent of corn, 87 percent of cotton, and 91 percent of soy, for a total value to farmers from these three crops alone of about $69 billion alone.”
The agricultural industry is intending to take advantage of new capabilities and keep moving forward.
“While most existing GM crops are modified with a single gene altering a single trait, the next generation will contain multiple genes that through their interactions confer more complex traits. Drought tolerance in cereal crops is one such desired trait.”
Many of the most interesting applications lie in the industrial sector. Currently, much of the focus is on producing efficient biofuels. The author predicts that the nature of that industry will be transformed by technology innovations.
“The fermentation of sugar to produce ethanol and butanol will be short-term solutions. The strategy of improving biofuels-production pathways in existing organisms will rapidly be supplanted by new organisms, modified via metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, that directly convert feedstocks into transportation fuels similar to gasoline. The application of these technologies to industrial biotechnology is already well past academic exploration and into commercialization.”

“Amyris Biotechnologies is pursuing microbial production of biodiesel and a general aviation fuel comparable to Jet-A. The company suggests these fuels will be competitive with fossil fuels at prices as low as $45 a barrel by 2011. Achieving this goal would open up a 3.2 billion gallon-per-year market—the U.S. Air force is planning to replace at least half it petroleum-derived JP-8 with synthetic fuels by 2010.”
The author lists two other applications that serve to illustrate the potential that resides in this technology.
“While transportation fuels are an early target for commercialization of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, it will eventually be possible to treat biomass or waste material as feedstocks for microbes producing more than just fuels. Dupont and Genencor have constructed an organism that turns starch into propanediol, which is then polymerized in an industrial process into a fiber called Sorona, now successfully competing in the market against petroleum-based plastics. Sorona’s competitive advantage comes from building biology into the production process, resulting in an integrated system that is approximately a factor of 2 more efficient than the industrial process it replaces, while consuming considerably less energy and resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions.”
In other words, when you are dealing with microbes, processes tend to scale easily.
“A paper published in the spring of 2007 reported the successful construction of a synthetic pathway, consisting of thirteen enzymes, that turns starch directly into hydrogen. This suggests a future fueling infrastructure in which sugar or starch—substances available at any grocery store—go into the tank instead of gasoline, ethanol or any preprocessed fuel. The hypothetical fueling process is very simple: the consumer adds sugar or starch, the enzymes chew on it, and hydrogen gas bubbles out of the soup and is then used in a fuel cell to provide electric power for the car.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that vehicle to appear, but an ability to cheaply produce hydrogen in a controlled manner will find applications.

There is much to look forward to. Hopefully it will be exciting new technologies and not the fear of bioterrorism.

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