Inside the fact-based report on biological science that reads like science fiction

It’s not often a McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report covers strategies for cultivating life on other planets—but The Bio Revolution: Innovations transforming economies, societies and our lives is an unusual report. Three years in the works, it details the many ways that new innovations in the biological sciences, when combined with advances in computing and AI, can change the way we live.

MGI is devoted to providing facts that contribute to decision making on critical management and policy issues that shape lives and livelihoods. Bio innovation will revolutionize what we eat and wear, the fuels we use, and how we construct our physical world. As much as 60 percent of the physical inputs or materials that contribute to the world economy could be produced biologically, and 45 percent of the global burden of disease could be addressed. In fact, the bio revolution is already helping us fight COVID-19—never in history has a virus been sequenced so rapidly.

The Bio Revolution outlines this tremendous potential across four areas: biomolecules—the mapping, measuring, and engineering of molecules; biosystems—the engineering of cells, tissues, and organs; biomachines—the interface between biology and machines; and biocomputing—the use of cells or molecules such as DNA for computation. The report also covers the field’s substantial risks, legal and ethical issues, and the significant complexities inherent in adapting the innovations.

All of this is illustrated through 400 use cases, most of which are scientifically viable today. Here, the researchers who assembled them introduce themselves and share their favorites.

Miracle cure in a single shot


Donna Xia, Associate

PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences specializing in cancer biology

I helped authenticate the 400-plus use cases. I’m especially excited about gene therapies that cure monogenic diseases: those caused by a single gene. In layman's terms, this therapy replaces a faulty gene in your body, and with a single treatment, can completely cure a person. There’s now a drug for spinal muscular atrophy, a rare devastating disorder that is a leading cause of infant mortality. Now trial data from a drug called Zolgensma shows that around 90 percent of the children who received the treatment survived 14 months with much better motor control. Zolgensma is the most expensive drug ever approved at $2 million a dose. That has to change, but there is no doubt that gene therapy is going to transform many lives. (Note: You can read more about this innovation on pages 52 and 102 of the report.)

Curing disease before it happens


Archana Maganti, Associate

Practicing doctor in India with a business degree

I analyzed use cases in health and human services. The application that stood out for me was the use of gene therapy before or after conception. If offers the possibility of curing up to some 10,000 monogenic diseases before they even occur. Of course there are significant ethical questions that are far from being resolved with this technology, but as a doctor this fascinates me.

Supersizing plants’ ability to consume CO2


Travers Nisbet, Engagement Manager

A business degree, with expertise in the economic impact of technology innovations 

I joined the project in the final phase, helping with everything from pressure-testing research to synthesizing key findings and getting the report launched.

One use case that excites me is the Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plant Initiative, which could be a big step forward for sustainability. Plants are genetically engineered to have deeper and more extensive root systems so they can capture and store more CO2. The illustrative math suggests that converting roughly five percent of the world’s cropland to genetically engineered plants could enable us to capture approximately the same amount of CO2 created by all airline emissions in a year.

The science is nascent, there is a ton of work to get it out of the lab, create the seeds, and make it commercially viable with farmers, but the potential impact would be significant. (Note: You can read more about this innovation on page 136 of the report.)

Life on Mars


Alice Zheng, Engagement Manager

A physician with an MBA and experience working in public health, pharma, and health services

I joined the research early on helping to define scope and research methodologies, identify emerging trends, and measure the economic opportunities created by bio innovation.

As a physician, health-related applications were top of mind, but I was most fascinated by use cases at the frontier of discovery—things I had never thought about. My favorite is the idea that you can “terraform” a planet, making it more Earth-like and therefore more habitable for humans. Microbes could be genetically engineered to consume carbon monoxide as energy, or to engineer organisms to construct habitats—say on Mars—more efficiently, like mushrooms to secrete bioplastics. The idea of space colonization and the role of the biological revolution is very far into the future, but it captures the imagination of this research. (Note: You can read more about this innovation on page 140 of the report.)

Restoring sight to the blind


Kevin Hwang, Senior Business Analyst

Business analyst with expertise in molecular biology

I focused on biomachines and biocomputing applications, new technologies that link analytics and digital devices to biological systems.

The retinal implant offers tremendous promise. In the case of a person experiencing blindness due to optic-nerve damage, a microelectrode array can serve as a bridge that bypasses dead tissue and communicates with the optic nerve in the brain. SecondSight’s retinal implant has enabled clinically blind patients to distinguish shapes, sense light, and even read print. As researchers advance ways to transmit these signals from the neuroprosthetic to the brain, partially blind or blind patients could see again with more and more detail as time goes on. (Note: You can read more about this innovation on page 146 of the report.)

Vegetarians go mainstream


Anneke Maxi Pethö-Schramm, Fellow Senior Associate

A business degree, with expertise in digital innovation

I helped to define the scope and methodology for sizing the economic impact of the use cases and then focused on the consumer and agriculture domains.

As a vegetarian, I hope that innovation in alternative proteins could change what we eat in the future. New fermentation processes, for example, enable the production of dairy proteins without the cow that are identical in taste and nutrition to animal proteins. This can reduce the negative impact on the environment and animal welfare. Ten years from now, we might also find lab-grown meat right next to traditional meat products in the supermarket. It’s a powerful way to change the way we think about food. (Note: You can read more about this innovation on page 115 of the report.)

Bio-degradable plastics


George Wang, Senior Business Analyst

A degree in computational biology, working with biotech, pharma, and digital health companies

Early on, I helped define the viability and scope of the research and later, oversaw the launch of the report and initial outreach.

I am very excited about the impact that biology can have on the materials category and manufacturing as a whole. Biology-based production can make many processes much more sustainable. Consider the use of a bio-polymer – engineered yeast – instead of petroleum to create plastic products. Or squalene, a common ingredient in moisturizers that comes from the liver of deep-sea sharks, but is now being manufactured by fermenting sugar cane with genetically engineered yeast. Beauty products could become completely plant-based and sustainable, critical traits for a growing number of consumers.

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