Synbio, the Paradigm Shift in Biotech: Hacking the Software of Life
Over the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about a paradigm shifting moment in biotech that’s happening right now.
And how its implications on the race for a COVID-19 vaccine are just the tip of an exponential iceberg.
I recorded a video call with editorial director Greg Canavan earlier this week to explain more about the investment opportunity and why we’re in the midst of what I call a technological ‘collision’ point.
You can watch the second video here now (it’s less than five minutes long).
Now, let’s talk ‘80s computers…and why a funny childhood memory helped me see a new exponential trend in the making…
If I’d known then what I know now
It was 1985…
And ZX Spectrum computers were all the rage.
This tiny black computer with rubber keys opened up my generation’s eyes to the amazing possibilities of the computer age.
Here was a typical set-up:
It was the first mainstream computer in the UK.
In those days, you had to know some basic coding to get by. There was no mouse to point and click at stuff.
Instead, everything was done by typing instructions in the command line interface (CLI).
But when you’re young, new skills like this become second nature. Your brain is like a sponge.
And back then I even knew how to write some basic programs.
One that sticks in my head was this little classic:
‘10 Print “Ryan is the best”
‘20 GOTO 10
I would gleefully call my older brother into the room just as I ran the short but sweet program.
The monitor would then repeatedly type out the message, informing my brother over and over again that I was indeed, ‘the best’.
And of course, the sentences within the quotation marks could sometimes be a bit cruder too!
So much fun, all from just two lines of code.
Unfortunately, this moment marked the pinnacle of my coding abilities.
But if I’d known then what I know now, I think I might’ve tried to advance my skills beyond annoying my big brother…
The entire fabric of the 21st century has been built on code, and some of my friends that are coders live in exotic places like San Francisco earning fat pay cheques.
As early-stage tech investor Marc Andreessen put it, ‘software is eating the world.’
I bring up this memory today because I’ve recently discovered a new form of coding that is underway.
It’s still in its relative infancy.
But its implications could be profound in all manner of ways.
Because this new form of coding is allowing us to understand the ‘software’ of biology. The software of life itself.
Today I want to explain a bit about how bio-coding works. I’m sure you’ll find it as fascinating as I do.
And it’s a big part of the fast growing synbio trend I’ve been talking to you about these past few days.
I think once you grasp what it means, it will really open your eyes to the extreme investment potential on offer…
Drugs as code
Imagine your body is a type of computer.
What happens when a computer gets a ‘virus’?
Usually a program is written to fix the problem. You update your software with the latest update or ‘patch’ as it’s called.
That’s the same idea behind synbio and bio-coding.
If your body works like a computer, then diseases are actually coding problems to be solved. To fix the problem, you just need to code the right solution.
It actually makes sense when you understand how your body works…
Your DNA is a kind of code after all. And the sequence of your DNA — made up of just four base compounds — contains all the information for building and maintaining an organism.
If you can understand what the sequence of your DNA — or any organism’s DNA — means, then you can indeed code a solution with treatments that can interact or change your DNA.
That’s the central idea at the heart of the emerging world of synthetic biology.
As New Scientist explains it:
‘Synthetic biology aims to make it possible to treat cells as machines that can be engineered and programmed. By altering a microbe’s native DNA, it can be made to perform a specific task, such as producing a drug or changing colour to detect a virus in blood.’
The old industry model was to find naturally occurring compounds that would cause a reaction in your body that was favourable to whatever you were trying to treat.
But as we saw with Eroom’s law yesterday, that’s an expensive, slow, and laborious process.
Now imagine that instead of finding drugs to interact with your body in a certain way, you could create compounds to send your DNA instructions to create its own responses.
Like how software tells your computer what to do.
The drugs of the future will work like how apps work on your iPhone.
When you understand that, you realise that the process of creating drugs changes.
Biotech research becomes a coding issue, not just a biological one.
And the thing about code is that it is easier to work with and it can do very complicated things.
Like making different decisions depending on new information (or telling your brother you’re the best repeatedly with only two lines of code).
Imagine the same tools were used to design a treatment to specifically work for your body?
That’s the future of medicine.
This is cutting edge stuff and we’re still entering the unknown in some ways.
But like the early computer industry did, Drew Endy at Stanford University thinks it’ll spawn a huge new industry.
‘“I expect that programmers of biology will become more commonplace than programmers of electrical computers,” he says. “Not everyone has a computer or even a cellphone, but everyone has biology.”’
Get in on the ground floor
As I said at the start, I wish I could’ve somehow told seven-year-old me to stick at computer coding.
But alas, back then I had no way of knowing how the world would evolve.
These days, though, at least I’m aware of the possibilities of exponential growth.
And as an investor that specialises in looking for emerging trends, the world of synbio is hands down my favourite trend of the decade.
Synbio is set to radically redesign the very concept of biotech as it plugs itself into the already exponential world of computing.
With all the advances in AI, big data, and machine learning that brings with it.
The ramifications of this could be the biggest change either of us will see in our lifetimes.
Editor, Money Morning
PS: Ryan is also editor of Exponential Stock Investor, a stock tipping newsletter that looks for the biggest investment opportunities on the market. For information on how to subscribe and see what Ryan’s telling his subscribers right now, click here.