Cutting-edge research in genomics will unlock the vast potential of an organism’s genetic code to unleash inconceivable strides for mankind and agriculture.

“This wave of technology is coming whether you’re ready or not,” said Juan Enriquez, a world-leading genetic code authority and user.

Enriquez is the managing director of Excel Venture Management. The Boston, Mass.-based organization builds companies to apply advances in life sciences into the health care, energy, chemical, defense, and agricultural fields.

The future of mankind and agriculture is strongly tied to unlocking the genome. The genome is an organism’s entire hereditary information (code) recorded in DNA or RNA.

Scientists continue to unlock specific organism genomes, including the human genome, to understand how organisms work and how to manipulate genes, for example, to re-grow human organs.

Enriquez spoke to produce industry members during the 86th Western Growers annual meeting in San Diego, Calif., in November. Western Growers is an agricultural trade association based in Irvine, Calif., whose members grow, pack, and ship about half of the nation’s produce.

Enriquez’s PowerPoint presentation included a slide with several genetically-modified cows in South America which produce life-saving medicine. Another photo showed a large building where the same medicine is developed.

“Every time you clone this animal it produces the same medicine to treat cancer patients,” Enriquez said. “Twenty of these animals can substitute for this (cancer medicine) factory.”

Each human cell contains about 3.2 billion letters of gene code called genes. Each cell contains an entire genetic copy of a person. For example, a one-letter (code) change could change a person into an exact clone of a neighbor. Astonishingly, the genetic difference between a human and a mouse is only about 5 percent.

Code is written using the numbers 0 and 1 in a long string which makes the 26-letter alphabet obsolete in every language.

Enriquez made three connecting points — all wealth comes from code, code keeps changing, and code is evolving from digital code to life code.

Humans are the only species that codes and consistently teaches the next generation, Enriquez says. Code has become portable — available for example through crop reports, taxes, and comic books. Code is spread over far distances which increase wealth and knowledge.

The digital revolution has spurred code advancements. In 1956, IBM unveiled its 305 RAMAC, the first commercial computer with magnetic disk storage, priced at $1 million. The room-sized computer stored 5 megabits of information; the size of a single average digital photo today. This year, Intel released a computer chip which processes 1 trillion operations per second.

Code advancements will make it possible to fit all music ever composed in a single computer within the next three years.

Agriculture revolution

While the digital age has jettisoned from Commodore 64 computers in the mid 1980s to Palm Pilots in the 1990s to today’s rapid Smart Phones, the digital age is evolving into the life science revolution where even more defined data will further change human life.

While computers ushered the world through the digital revolution, today’s computers are actually inept compared to the speed of expeditious life science technology.

“Life sciences is (growing) three times faster than we can build computers to store the data coming out of gene sequencing,” Enriquez said. “We will double the amount of data generated by humans across time in the next five years.”

For agriculture, the ability to read and manipulate an organism’s code has unlimited potential.

“We can sequence maize and cow genomes and make identical copies. We are starting to re-write life. This is a big deal,” Enriquez said.

Twenty genetically-modified goats in western Massachusetts produce Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines for human use. Each goat is valued at about $1 million — the same price tag as IBM’s first commercial computer.

Understanding life code means it is not necessary to execute the entire genetic code. By utilizing parts of the genome, the regrowth of human body parts is possible. Damaged teeth can regenerate in a Petri dish. Damaged heart valves and bladders can be repaired. Human limbs lost to disease, accidents, and war can be re-grown.

BASF and Toyota are among the world’s largest companies heavily investing in life science, Enriquez says. For General Electric, life science is the fastest-growing component of the company; today generating about 14 percent of the company’s revenue.

For ever-changing agriculture, the evolving life-science industry perceives farmland as much more than food, feed, and fiber production. Plants are giant solar panels with the capacity to produce incredible amounts of energy.

The corn plant has been designed to directly produce biodegradable plastic. In Tennessee, DuPont is making biodegradable plastic from bacteria instead of expensive petroleum.

“This is coming at your (agriculture) business pretty quickly,” Enriquez said. “We’re beginning to understand people’s metabolism, how food grows, and code. There is a big do-it-yourself biology movement out there.”

Research suggests a purple gene in modified tomatoes can increase a mouse’s life span from 142 days to 182 days in mice bred to get cancer. Imagine how this refined technology could extend a human life with cancer.

Enriquez raised this question to the produce crowd. Should we purchase all natural, 100-percent organic broccoli at $4 or all natural, 100-percent genetically-modified (cancer-fighting) broccoli for $8? Which would you buy?

Advancements in grain are the first stage of agriculture’s genomic revolution. About 80 percent of the grain consumed today in North America is genetically modified.

Advancements in gluten research are a major benefit for those allergic to gluten. Battling diabetes through genomic advancements is also on researchers’ front burner.

The bottom line – the opportunities for genomics in agriculture are endless. 

cblake@farmpress.com