An executive order from the Biden administration aims to build a robust economy “in a manner that benefits all Americans and the global community and maintains United States technological leadership and economic competitiveness.” The executive order acknowledged the importance of biodata to growing the U.S. bioeconomy and calls for “a biological data initiative.”
That’s easier said than done. I see significant challenges that must be addressed ahead of May 10, the deadline by which several U.S. government agencies are required to report to the White House the biological data sources they deem critical to U.S. national interests. Agencies must also share by then their plans to fill data gaps, reduce security risks to biological data repositories, and outline each agency’s authorities, resources, and actions needed to support the data initiative.
Efforts to explore and map the genomes and molecular processes that govern biological organisms are the modern data equivalent of the crude maps used by 15th-century seafarers exploring uncharted waters. Just as better maps increased economic and military power centuries ago, accurate information about how biological processes operate at the molecular, individual, population, and ecosystem scales will empower U.S. leadership in biomanufacturing and synthetic biology.
Biodata matter to U.S. national and economic security
The U.S. and Chinese governments both recognize that biotechnology is critical to national security and economic competitiveness. The U.S. bioeconomy already accounts for about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product ($960 billion) and is rapidly expanding. Biomanufacturing is becoming a major mode of production for a wide range of industries, from pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals to food and fuels. Biotechnologies can also play important roles in ensuring supply chain resiliency, mitigating climate change, and restoring damaged ecosystems.
National security concerns about biology have historically focused on bioweapons developed by individuals, terrorists, and state actors. Today, the biggest biotech threat may be the loss of U.S. economic competitiveness, stemming from a failure to transition the country’s enormous advantages in biological research into the infrastructure needed to grow the bioeconomy.
The world is in the middle of a technology transformation. Biology — understanding how living things operate — is converging with the digital world. Biology is written in code, but instead of ones and zeroes it is written in As, Ts, Gs, and Cs, the nucleic acid sequences of DNA. Reading, writing, and editing this code will eventually have an even larger impact than the digital revolution.
Biological data fuels growth of the bioeconomy
Data is the essential fuel of the bioeconomy.
The quantity and variety of biodata are driven by new methods for observing and measuring biological processes, and new biotechnology applications, including synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Genomics, which involves deciphering the sequence of base pairs in the DNA of an individual, generates especially large amounts of data. A single human genome consists of more than 3 billion base pairs, the equivalent of 200 gigabytes of data.