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5 biotech trends I'm excited about in 2020

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

It’s become a recent tradition for me to start the year with some prognostications about what’s on the horizon for biotechnology. Last year, I talked about in vitro physiology models, the wonderful world of non-Cas9 nucleases, exotic microbial production hosts, and the increasingly blurring line between the biological and the inorganic. I was thrilled to see how strongly the post resonated with our readers, I and couldn't pass up the opportunity to discuss what we have to look forward to in 2020.

1. Engineered resource utilization in biosynthesis

Classically, metabolic engineering research has put a premium on expanding the product range of engineered organisms, perhaps by managing metabolic flux or introducing exogenous synthetic pathways. The idea here is to start with a microorganism that's genetically tractable and easy to feed and then modify it to produce compounds of interest in energy, health, commercial, or industrial contexts. Ideal organisms are phototrophic, meaning they contain the photosynthetic machinery to use light energy to perform chemical reactions, or they consume glucose or related sugars, which are abundantly available as cheap commodities.

Comparatively less work has been put into engineering biosynthetic organisms to use unusual sources of carbon and energy. But increasing carbon dioxide emissions have prompted a new way of thinking about resource utilization in production strains: a microorganism that can assimilate CO2, or a chemical derivative of CO2 like methanol, suddenly has an increasing supply of easily accessible substrate and simultaneously may play a small part in remediating atmospheric carbon dioxide. As additional resource utilization pathways are engineered, it may become possible to produce specialty chemicals from whatever bulk chemical happens to be on hand rather than requiring strain-specific growth media.

2. CRISPR/Cas technology beyond genome editing

It wouldn't be Trends in Biotechnology without novel applications of CRISPR. The capacity of CRISPR/Cas tools to edit genomes barely needs an introduction at this point, and last year I talked about how the expanding array of CRISPR proteins beyond the most commonly used Cas9 will eventually be useful for application-specific genome editing approaches. (There still haven’t been many gene-editing applications of Cas14, but I'm sure they're coming.)

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