The original Human Genome Project, concluded in 2003, was heralded as “one of the great feats of exploration in history,” unleashing astounding innovations in everything from health to forensics. But the project covered only 92 percent of the sequence. In the years that followed, new sequencing technologies and computational methods put filling in those missing pieces within reach. “So we got some of the band back together,” says Evan Eichler, a professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington, who worked on the original Human Genome Project two decades ago. In April, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium announced it had completed the remaining 8 percent—finally completing the entirety of the human genome sequence.
11th Most Influential Project of 2022
Once experimental, in vitro fertilization is now decidedly mainstream, with roughly 2.5 million IVF cycles completed globally each year. But while the procedure has exploded in popularity, no standardized system has emerged for tracking and monitoring the millions of eggs and embryos harvested and fertilized during the IVF process. Until now. TMRW Life Sciences developed an automated platform to track each cell individually and automatically, providing 24/7 monitoring and a transparent chain of custody.
48th Most Influential Project of 2022
The 2021 rollout of billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses was an amazing feat—but one marred by inequity, as many countries lacked the technological capacity to manufacture vaccines. To put more power in the hands of nations in need, the World Health Organization took a new approach: creating a hub-and-spoke model that would establish a central facility for biotech development, which would then disseminate know-how to local manufacturers. The first such hub, sponsored by Afrigen and opened in Cape Town in June 2021, has already developed its own breakthroughs, with a COVID-19 vaccine expected to move into clinical trials next year. And the hub’s utility will extend far beyond the novel coronavirus. In July of this year, Afrigen and the U.S. government announced a partnership to use the facility to develop mRNA vaccines against diseases like tuberculosis and Ebola.
Mycelium—the branching, thread-like filaments that are the principal part of any fungus—are having a moment, with a growing number of companies pursuing innovative uses for the natural material. (See: mycelium-based bricks and insulation, mycelium-based packaging that replaces plastics and mycelium-based textiles, like mushroom leather.) But a mycelium-based boom requires mycelium—and lots of it. So in July, Ecovative unveiled the 78,000-square-foot (7,246-square-meter) Swersey Silos, claiming the title of world’s largest vertical farm for aerial mycelium. The facility, based in Green Island, New York, can produce nearly 3 million pounds of mycelium annually, thanks to proprietary tech that helps keep the interior constantly dark, foggy and dewy. For now, Swersey Silos’ mycelium are destined for mushroom bacon (sold by Ecovative spin-off MyForest Foods), but company leaders are so confident in future demand that they’ve already launched a project to build another facility in nearby Saratoga Springs.
Paris’ DNA Script, renowned for its breakthroughs in on-demand DNA printing, announced it had developed the first benchtop nucleic acid printer last year. The payoff? A potential leap in innovation through rapid iteration. The platform will allow genetic researchers to conduct high-level experiments without the extended wait times or the security risk associated with outsourcing such tasks to better-equipped labs. Company CEO and co-founder Thomas Ybert hailed the project but said it was “just the beginning.” And indeed, in April, the company announced a program giving select users early access to new features—from instrument models to chemistries that increase oligo mass, length and quality.
Vowing to phase out fur is certainly on trend. Burberry, Neiman Marcus and Oscar de la Renta are just a few recently committing to convert. But pivoting to faux fur brings its own ethical and sustainability issues: Almost all of it is made from microplastics, which languish in landfills for decades and pollute water systems. In April, luxe fashion group LVMH teamed up with Imperial College London and Central Saint Martins University of the Arts London to announce a two-year project aimed at developing a low-impact, bio-based alternative made from keratin (the same protein found in hair and nails). Though details around the proof of concept are largely hush-hush, the project team insists that sustainability will be a throughline. The goal is to refine a process to use DNA sequences to grow keratin from yeast cells in a lab, then turn the resulting fibers into fur. The team is initially focused on familiar furs like mink and fox to start, but fashion knows no boundaries. “If you look at the genomes that have been sequenced, perhaps you might want lab-grown mohair or cashmere, or even a fur coat made from the woolly mammoth genome,” says Tom Ellis, PhD, a bioengineering professor at Imperial College. “These things could be possible: All you need to start is a DNA sequence on a database.”
Research institute BioMed X is teaming up with healthcare company Merck KGaA on a new oncological research project. The aim? To discover the precise role that DNA sequences existing outside of chromosomes play in tumor production and cancer growth. The researchers plan to create an atlas of sorts, revealing the forms of extrachromosomal DNA that commonly coincide with cancer—some mutations of which can cause resistance to cancer-fighting drugs and a faster rate of tumor growth. “We need to understand the precise biology of these DNA elements in order to design more potent anticancer treatments, especially for aggressive forms of cancer that rapidly become resistant to therapies,” says lead researcher Dr. Alexandros Drainas. Announced in August, the research project marks the seventh oncology collaboration between the two German companies.
After struggling to produce enough milk for her newborn son, cell biologist Leila Strickland became interested in creating lab-grown breast milk, ultimately partnering with food scientist Michelle Egger to create the U.S. startup Biomilq. Then last year, the startup accomplished a feat that had long been considered impossible: cultivating human breast milk in the lab using human mammary cells. The result is a nutrient-rich alternative to commercial formula, with the proteins, lipids and complex carbohydrates that make breast milk so beneficial to a growing infant. Now the team is focused on scaling for production, with the goal of hitting grocery store shelves in the next few years.
Collaboration and privacy aren’t easy bedfellows. But French-American MedTech company Owkin has created a way to help super-competitive pharma companies straddle both imperatives: Its AI platform uses federated learning, essentially training powerful algorithms across multiple decentralized data sets, so collective insights can be unlocked while the underlying proprietary data remains under lock and key. In December 2021, at the conclusion of a three-year project with Amgen, the recently crowned unicorn revealed its algorithms were more accurate than routine clinical methods at predicting a person’s chances of developing severe cardiovascular disease. And by ranking the variables that had the largest impact, the cardiac-predicting AI also revealed some surprising findings: A history of heart attacks and high HbA1C levels (a blood sugar measurement), for instance, had a larger impact on someone’s risk score than their cholesterol levels or whether they had a coronary stent implant. Owkin SVP Jean-Frédéric Petit-Nivard says the project could “fundamentally improve patient monitoring and treatment,” as the company continues collaborating with Amgen to “translate these scientific findings into clinical applications.”
The advent of convincing plant-based substitutes for beef has been a boon for environmentally conscious carnivores, but many wonder if there will ever be actual steak that diners can feel good about eating. Aleph Farms may have cracked the carnivore conundrum with a ribeye the Israeli startup cooked up in a lab. By using cells taken from cows, Aleph circumvents the enormous volume of carbon emissions caused by the beef industry—while delivering a product the company says is just as tasty as the typical sirloins and ribeyes currently on the market. In December 2021, Aleph inked a partnership with German chemical manufacturer Wacker Chemie to improve the production processes for the growth proteins it needs—potentially removing one of the biggest obstacles in large-scale manufacturing. The goal? Scale production and offer the products to the mass market within the next five years.