By Albert Hinman, PhD, 2022-2023 ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow
The recently released White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) report, Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing, highlights where insights provided by human genetics and genomics are fundamental for the health biotechnology ecosystem and are critical components of the bioeconomy. This report comes after OSTP solicited public input in a Request for Information (RFI) to inform the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative, which was launched in 2022 in an executive order seeking to broadly strengthen the nation’s capacity to use biotechnology to address health, climate and energy, food and agriculture, and supply chain resilience goals. The report, echoing content in ASHG’s response to the RFI, outlines several priorities that incorporate the benefits and needs of human genetics and genomics research for its strategy.
Human Genetics and Genomics are Fundamentally Important for the Bioeconomy
Human health has greatly benefited from research advances, from the discovery of DNA to the development of cell and gene therapies. Biotechnology is rapidly incorporating new advances in synthetic biology, genetic technology, and engineering biology research to address national and global needs. Although the applications of biotechnology are expressed most strongly in human health, new opportunities are arising to develop technology to provide products and services in climate and energy, food and agriculture, and industrial supply chains. The bioeconomy – defined as the total economic activity derived from biotechnology interacting with these sectors – has been forecasted to have a potential impact of $4 trillion annually over the next 10 to 20 years (McKinsey Global Institute, 2020). Especially promising are the potential benefits for sustainability and conservation, as biomanufacturing processes can convert renewable biomass feedstocks to create chemicals, medicines, fuels, and materials that are typically made with more environmentally damaging methods.
Several advances in engineering biology research will need to be developed to realize this potential. Broadly, these fundamental research needs can be categorized across the domains of engineering DNA, biomolecular engineering, host engineering, and data science. Alongside this fundamental research, developing domestic biomanufacturing infrastructure, equitable workforce development, regulatory procedures for engineered organisms, streamlined data sharing processes, international engagement strategies, and biosecurity discussions are seen as critical areas to ensure that the field is developed to be the most beneficial to the public.
Given this vast diversity of needs, developing a domestic bioeconomy will require the participation of several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Defense. To organize these interagency efforts, the current White House administration signed the Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. The White House OSTP, along with coordinating the many agencies involved with this goal, is tasked with outlining domestic bioeconomy priorities and preparing an implementation plan. Their report, Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing, serves this first step of outlining several bioeconomy priorities. These outlines detail how several aspects of human genetics and genomics technologies are critical for health and other cross-cutting advancements in the bioeconomy.
Advances in Precision Multi-Omic Medicine for Disease Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment
The human genetics and bioeconomy communities share a common goal of ensuring that genetic datasets are representative of humanity’s diversity, especially in health applications toward disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. As exemplary models of how to pursue these genomic sequencing efforts, the report cited several genomic initiatives, including the All of Us Research Program, Undiagnosed Disease Network, and the International 100K+ Cohorts Consortium. The report’s goals are enumerated with aims set on 5- and 20-year benchmark goals focused on collecting multi-omic data and developing a $1,000 multi-ome for health applications. Some forecasted research and development needs included developing biosensors, developing novel high throughput sequencing technologies, creating robust standards and benchmarks for multi-omics research, developing centralized data storing criteria, and integrating multi-omics data with clinical care. Precision multi-omic medicine shares a portfolio with many other health initiatives, including accessible health monitoring, biomanufacturing of cell-based therapies, AI-driven bioproduction of therapeutics, and advanced gene editing. It is important to note that these efforts emphasize the need for diverse cohorts in datasets to address health inequities and increase representation in research.
Advancements in Genomic Sequencing Capabilities for Cross-Cutting Efforts
The human genetics and bioeconomy communities also share a great appreciation for the power of high-throughput sequencing technologies to provide answers to fundamental science and technology questions. High throughput sequencing has enabled several breakthroughs in health, food and agriculture, climate and energy, and supply-chain resiliency goals. For example, the White House OSTP report cited several uses of genomic sequencing to characterize new plant and animal pathogens affecting agriculture, using sequencing technology to characterize diverse organisms across the tree of life, and combining sequencing technology with materials science to build “plug and play” DNA-part repositories for industrial manufacturing. The report identified that fostering public-private partnerships to build sequencing infrastructure allows the public to use the newest private-sector technologies to accelerate sequencing outputs and reduce costs. Ultimately, many of the goals of the report seek to build a network of resources useful for biomanufacturing across the United States, including distributed, modular, and next-generation autonomous laboratories with sequencing capabilities. Also important in these endeavors will be to develop policies, platforms, and guidelines for broad data sharing that protects the confidentiality and privacy of human participants.
Direct and Indirect Economic Impact of Human Genetics and Genomics for the Bioeconomy
In the White House OSTP report, it was recognized that the bioeconomy can contribute significant potential economic activity for the United States. It is important to note how this activity is especially bolstered by human genetics and genomics. ASHG commissioned a report in 2021, The Economic Impact and Functional Applications of Human Genetics and Genomics, which identified that the human genetics and genomics sector contributes $265 billion to the U.S. economy annually. The report additionally found that the field contributes 152,000 direct industry jobs, 850,000 supported jobs because of these direct positions, a 4.75:1.00 federal return on investment, and $5.2 billion in tax revenues. Human genetics and genomics were also found to have an incredible fundamental impact on giving researchers the technical abilities to ask basic biological research questions, enabling discoveries in both biomedical and non-medical domains. These ideas are well reflected in the White House OSTP report, with gene editing and therapy, minable big data, and metagenomics being well represented across several different initiatives. Both ASHG’s commissioned report and the White House OSTP report reflect the wide utility of human genetics in economic impact and functional application for many sectors.
Consistent with ASHG’s goals, successfully conveying the benefits and needs of human genetic and genomic technologies is an essential first step in creating a bioeconomy that realizes benefits for people everywhere, a key component of the Society’s mission. Additionally, these developments reflect the maturity of genetics as a scientific field and its utility for new and exciting ventures.
Stay Informed of ASHG Advocacy Activities
ASHG remains committed to acting as a resource for federal programs and policies seeking to responsibly use and apply human genetic knowledge. By taking action and responding to RFIs like this one, ASHG seeks to highlight the role of the human genetics and genomics research field in translating science into beneficial applications and communicating with the public and policymakers about the promise and potential of human genetics and genomics research. To stay informed, become an ASHG Advocate and sign-up for the Society’s e-newsletter. Learn more about ASHG’s policy priorities and advocacy activities by visiting our advocacy page.