In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill mandating that by 2045, all of California's electricity will come from clean power sources. Technological breakthroughs in producing electricity from sun and wind, as well as lowering the cost of battery storage, have played a major role in persuading Californian legislators that this goal is realistic.
Even if the world were to move to an entirely clean power supply, one major source of greenhouse gas emissions would continue to grow: meat.
James Robo, the CEO of the Fortune 200 company NextEra Energy, has predicted that by the early 2020s, electricity from solar farms and giant wind turbines will be cheaper than the operating costs of coal-fired power plants, even when the cost of storage is included.
Can we therefore all breathe a sigh of relief, because technology will save us from catastrophic climate change? Not yet. Even if the world were to move to an entirely clean power supply, and use that clean power to charge up an all-electric fleet of cars, buses and trucks, one major source of greenhouse gas emissions would continue to grow: meat.
The livestock industry now accounts for about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as the emissions from the tailpipes of all the world's vehicles. But whereas vehicle emissions can be expected to decline as hybrids and electric vehicles proliferate, global meat consumption is forecast to be 76 percent greater in 2050 than it has been in recent years. Most of that growth will come from Asia, especially China, where increasing prosperity has led to an increasing demand for meat.
Changing Climate, Changing Diets, a report from the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, indicates the threat posed by meat production. At the UN climate change conference held in Cancun in 2010, the participating countries agreed that to allow global temperatures to rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels would be to run an unacceptable risk of catastrophe. Beyond that limit, feedback loops will take effect, causing still more warming. For example, the thawing Siberian permafrost will release large quantities of methane, causing yet more warming and releasing yet more methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, ton for ton, warms the planet 30 times as much as carbon dioxide.
The quantity of greenhouse gases we can put into the atmosphere between now and mid-century without heating up the planet beyond 2°C – known as the "carbon budget" -- is shrinking steadily. The growing demand for meat means, however, that emissions from the livestock industry will continue to rise, and will absorb an increasing share of this remaining carbon budget. This will, according to Changing Climate, Changing Diets, make it "extremely difficult" to limit the temperature rise to 2°C.
One reason why eating meat produces more greenhouse gases than getting the same food value from plants is that we use fossil fuels to grow grains and soybeans and feed them to animals. The animals use most of the energy in the plant food for themselves, moving, breathing, and keeping their bodies warm. That leaves only a small fraction for us to eat, and so we have to grow several times the quantity of grains and soybeans that we would need if we ate plant foods ourselves. The other important factor is the methane produced by ruminants – mainly cattle and sheep – as part of their digestive process. Surprisingly, that makes grass-fed beef even worse for our climate than beef from animals fattened in a feedlot. Cattle fed on grass put on weight more slowly than cattle fed on corn and soybeans, and therefore do burp and fart more methane, per kilogram of flesh they produce.
Richard Branson has suggested that in 30 years, we will look back on the present era and be shocked that we killed animals en masse for food.
If technology can give us clean power, can it also give us clean meat? That term is already in use, by advocates of growing meat at the cellular level. They use it, not to make the parallel with clean energy, but to emphasize that meat from live animals is dirty, because live animals shit. Bacteria from the animals' guts and shit often contaminates the meat. With meat cultured from cells grown in a bioreactor, there is no live animal, no shit, and no bacteria from a digestive system to get mixed into the meat. There is also no methane. Nor is there a living animal to keep warm, move around, or grow body parts that we do not eat. Hence producing meat in this way would be much more efficient, and much cleaner, in the environmental sense, than producing meat from animals.
There are now many startups working on bringing clean meat to market. Plant-based products that have the texture and taste of meat, like the "Impossible Burger" and the "Beyond Burger" are already available in restaurants and supermarkets. Clean hamburger meat, fish, dairy, and other animal products are all being produced without raising and slaughtering a living animal. The price is not yet competitive with animal products, but it is coming down rapidly. Just this week, leading officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been meeting to discuss how to regulate the expected production and sale of meat produced by this method.
When Kodak, which once dominated the sale and processing of photographic film, decided to treat digital photography as a threat rather than an opportunity, it signed its own death warrant. Tyson Foods and Cargill, two of the world's biggest meat producers, are not making the same mistake. They are investing in companies seeking to produce meat without raising animals. Justin Whitmore, Tyson's executive vice-president, said, "We don't want to be disrupted. We want to be part of the disruption."
That's a brave stance for a company that has made its fortune from raising and killing tens of billions of animals, but it is also an acknowledgement that when new technologies create products that people want, they cannot be resisted. Richard Branson, who has invested in the biotech company Memphis Meats, has suggested that in 30 years, we will look back on the present era and be shocked that we killed animals en masse for food. If that happens, technology will have made possible the greatest ethical step forward in the history of our species, saving the planet and eliminating the vast quantity of suffering that industrial farming is now inflicting on animals.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.