Why biotechnology will likely dominate the 21st century
You could call me a little bastard. I’m skinny, of no special height, and I’m the product of last century’s baby-making revolution called donor insemination (D.I.). A young, anonymous medical student decided to contribute his “seed” in exchange for quick cash, enabling my mom to have a kid. I was born at a time when this advancement in biomedicine was still in its early stages, before private sperm banks became commonplace. Yet the technology that made my existence possible was only the faintest harbinger of the kind of progress occurring right now in the life sciences—and that will continue to be made in the coming decades.
In his prescient 1997 book Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, well-known theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku writes:
For most of human history, we could only watch, like bystanders, the beautiful dance of Nature. But today, we are on the cusp of an epoch-making transition, from being passive observers of Nature to being active choreographers of Nature.
He goes on to predict:
The techniques of molecular biology will allow us to read the genetic code of life as we would read a book. Already, the complete DNA code of several living organisms, like viruses, single-cell bacteria, and yeast, have been completely decoded, molecule for molecule.
The complete human genome will be decoded by the year 2005, giving us an “owner’s manual” for a human being. This will set the stage for twenty-first century science and medicine. Instead of watching the dance of life, the biomolecular revolution will ultimately give us the nearly god-like ability to manipulate life almost at will.
Considering that the Human Genome Project was actually completed in 2003, and seeing some of Kaku’s other predictions come true earlier than he anticipated, I’m inclined to believe him. I now sometimes catch myself imagining a future, perhaps foolishly, in which I live to be at least 200 (“the new 20”) with a sharp mind and a super-strong, perfectly sculpted, six-foot-three physique that could make even those smart, beautiful people in the Alpha-Plus social caste from Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World scurry away in confused jealousy.
Within just a seven-day period, I watched news segments about labs that are growing human body parts for transplantation, controversy over companies that are patenting human genes, new fuels being created from algae, and countless pieces exploring the science and ethics behind genetically-engineered food and the sale of meat from cloned animals. In fact, such news now occurs with such regularity that I’m no longer astounded by it.
The biotech revolution has begun and will likely come to be regarded as one of the most dominating forces of the twenty-first century. It will reshape human society in ways we haven’t imagined—for better or worse.
Along with these changes will come a new wave of employment opportunities. And it won’t just be scientists and researchers enjoying them. As new developments occur, companies will race to take advantage, and governments will try to play catch up by designing new regulations. That means professionals will be needed in many different skill and knowledge areas—workers like biomedical technologists, laboratory assistants, sales and marketing personnel, quality assurance professionals, legal specialists, manufacturing consultants, and biotech ethicists.
If you plan on hanging around civilization these next few decades, then biotechnology is a sector you won’t be able to ignore. Here’s why:
Plants = energy
With climate change threatening to make our lives miserable and petroleum on its way to depletion, finding new ways of generating clean, abundant energy is perhaps the most challenging problem humanity currently faces. Advocates for wind, solar and nuclear energy production all have good reason to believe they are part of the solution. But sometimes minimized in conversations is the potential for biofuels—derived mostly from plants—to become a major piece of a new energy paradigm.
Most of us are already familiar with the ethanol produced from common crops such as corn. In Brazil, ethanol from sugarcane is widely used as part of a large and growing biofuels infrastructure unique to that country. Even so, many believe that the production of bioethanol carries too many drawbacks, not least of which is its current inefficiency.
Enter biotechnology with its potential to solve that problem. Soheil Mahmoud, assistant professor of biology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, is actively involved in developing a full understanding of how plants work. He believes that biofuels represent the most exciting development today in the biotech sector. “I think we are getting closer to perfecting the technology to actually take advantage of it quite a bit,” he says. “In the shorter run, there is going to be big progress. And I think lots of money is going to go into it. I think we will probably start using fuel generated by biotechnology within the next couple of decades.”
Some of the most promising research focuses on producing ethanol from almost any kind of organic matter by using biotech-created enzymes, yeasts and bacteria. Other research is targeted at maximizing crop yields by developing plants that are more drought-tolerant and disease resistant.
Yet another area of research involves growing huge quantities of algae to produce biofuels. But the jury is still out on this approach, with some scientists remaining highly skeptical that biofuels from algae can ever be created on a large enough scale.
No matter which approach ultimately proves most successful, there is not much doubt that plant-based solutions like biofuels are here to stay. Mahmoud says, “I think the answer to many of our problems, such as running out of natural resources, relies on the appropriate use, or efficient use, of plants using biotechnology.”
Nearer the Fountain of Youth
Wrinkle creams, hair dye and magical yogurt are so passé. There’s a new paradigm emerging to aid those who wish to cheat the effects of getting older. Imagine being able to replace your worn out organs with fresh ones developed from the cells of your own skin. Imagine, even, having the chance to be “super human”—with eyes that can see in infrared or ears that can detect the frequencies we currently miss. It’s almost impossible to comprehend all the possible advancements.
In Visions, Kaku writes:
Many genetic diseases will be eliminated by injecting people’s cells with the correct gene. Because cancer is now being revealed to be a series of genetic mutations, large classes of cancers may be curable at last, without invasive surgery or chemotherapy. Similarly, many of the microorganisms involved in infectious diseases will be conquered in virtual reality by locating the molecular weak spots in their armor and creating agents to attack those weak spots. Our molecular knowledge of cell development will be so advanced that we will be able to grow entire organs in the laboratory, including livers and kidneys.
The treatment of disease will also be greatly helped by new developments in biotechnology that improve how we derive medicines from plants. “We pay so much for them and, sometimes, plants produce so little,” Mahmoud says. “I’ll give you an example. Taxol—a whole plant can produce a few hundred milligrams of the compound. You have to cut down a 100-year-old tree and completely destroy it to get, maybe, treatment for a patient for a little while. This is not sustainable. That’s the best drug we have for treating cancer. So we need to find ways of making production of that compound more efficient. And, already, a tremendous amount of money and effort is going into that. Many people are studying the genes and pathways involved.”
Within this century, biotech could even develop a robust understanding of polygenic conditions (a wide range of diseases and other ailments that involve the interaction of multiple genes). Kaku writes in Visions:
The shift to polygenic diseases may prove to be the key to solving some of the most pressing chronic diseases facing humanity, including heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, schizophrenia, and the like. It may also lead to cloning humans and to isolating the fabled “age genes” which control our aging process, allowing us to extend the human life span.
A hungrier, thirstier world
Earth’s human population is on an expected climb towards nine billion this century. So the challenge of feeding everyone has companies and institutions scrambling to come up with biological technologies that will enable even larger quantities of food—already grown at levels difficult to grasp—to be produced in smaller spaces, with higher nutritional values, lower water requirements and better resistance to pests and climate fluctuations.
With more of the world being developed every year, a greater percentage of that growing population is getting used to the idea of a North American kind of food abundance and variety. Developed nations simply consume more. But when this century’s expected shortages of fresh water and arable land are factored into the picture, it quickly becomes apparent that we might need a pretty nifty toolbox to keep our lifestyles intact—something we can’t just buy off the shelf from a local big box store.
Given the current paradigm, advancements in biotechnology might be crucial for humanity’s comfort and survival. This can only mean we’ll see an ever-increasing amount of public and private investment flowing into biotech research, along with companies that will market the practical results of any breakthroughs. Having the biotechnological applications to cope with humanity’s twenty-first century problems may even prevent costly wars over scarce food and water.
Yet even with an army of biotech companies and researchers solving these daunting problems, we will need additional smart, compassionate people to help us grapple with the ambiguous and slippery side effects brought about by some of their solutions.
A minefield of controversies and ethical dilemmas
When we begin using something new and cool and promising, we often have the unintended habit of ignoring, not recognizing or not imagining some of the consequences of its use. Initially, we may feel considerable excitement, but history demonstrates that we learn about dangers and hidden ramifications that are difficult to resolve when we’ve already created and grown accustomed to complex infrastructures—including our own new habits and beliefs.
Controversy exists for a reason. It gives us a chance to step back and examine the bigger picture. Most people would agree with the idea that even though a new technology may solve a pressing problem, it shouldn’t be implemented in a way that is disrespectful of human dignity. And plenty of others would add that respect for the rest of the animal and ecological kingdom should also be seriously considered. But the meaning of respect and dignity mean different things to different people (even different things to the same person at different times), causing discussions about these topics to grow more confusing than a dream about a royally dressed hobo trying to sell swampland to a hippopotamus with a secret aversion to dirt.
Humans like things to be absolute. We don’t function comfortably within shades of grey. We expect winners and losers. Our identities sometimes depend on having a set of firm convictions from which we do not deviate, lest we lose our sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. We can sometimes feel that facts just get in the way. This means that the truth, or at least an intuitive ethical/moral compass, gets lost or buried when politicians, partisan pundits and religious leaders take over the conversations and turn them into debates between black and white extremes, sending more nuanced discussions underground.
Outcomes become practically unpredictable when fair, intelligent dialogue gets shut out. In Visions, Kaku writes:
With only a modest id="mce_marker"0,000 investment, one can conduct biotech experiments in one’s living room and begin to manipulate the genome of plants and animals. With a few million, one can create a fledgling biotech industry. The low initial investment, high return, and potential for feeding its people are some reasons why a poor nation such as Cuba has decided to jump into biotechnology.
But this also means that biotechnology is impossible to contain. One cannot restrict the flow of DNA; it’s everywhere. Because the technology can never be entirely banned, it is important to discuss and decide which of the various technologies should be allowed to flourish and which ones should be restricted; either via governmental fiat or by social and political pressure.
Three areas of biotechnology currently stand out above the rest for the hotly contested ethical showdowns, fiery skepticism and propaganda wars they’ve inspired: genetically engineered food, human cloning and stem cell research. But just because these have received the bulk of the attention doesn’t mean other areas or practices within the biotech sector should be immune from appropriate scrutiny.
For instance, some biotech companies may owe their existence to the ability to patent genes that they’ve learned how to isolate. It’s their key to turning a profit and paying for continued research. Problem is, patents are traditionally granted for new inventions by man. Genes are very clearly not inventions by man, but rather pervasive building blocks of life that are the work of nature.
Already, this has led to medical patients in the U.S.—trying to learn if they are candidates for potentially life-saving treatments—being denied full testing for certain disease-causing genes unless they are willing to pay expensive fees to the biotech firms which hold the patents for those genes. And getting a robust second opinion is practically impossible since other organizations are not allowed to test for, isolate or conduct research on genes that have been patented.
Likewise, farmers are being harassed and sued because they choose to save their own seeds and grow non-genetically modified crops. When it is suspected that the genetically modified crops of a neighboring farmer’s fields have contaminated their own fields, lawyers for a giant biotech firm show up claiming patent infringement. Unable to afford a protracted legal battle to prove they’ve done nothing wrong, most of these farmers choose to pay a settlement—often putting them out of business.
The system is flawed and frequently unjust. But unintended consequences are part of the scientific and technological landscape. They are oftentimes the price we pay for “progress.”
I am happy to have been born. Without D.I., I’d still just be a flickering fantasy in my mother’s eye. Yet there has been a cost. Because I’m an early product of D.I., I’ll probably never have the psychological and medical benefits of knowing my biological father or half of my genetic heritage—something many people too easily take for granted. And without a full understanding of my lineage, it’s possible that I may not be able to take advantage of future developments in biotechnology that could one day enhance, or even save, my life.
Still, to most scientists and biotech researchers, ethical issues are deeply important. They don’t take them lightly. Mahmoud says, “I look at biotechnology like many other things. To put it very simply: A knife can be used to peel an apple, to cut your food. It can be put to good use. It can be put to bad use (you can stab somebody with it). Biotechnology is a tool in our hands. It is up to us to use it appropriately. That’s where the ethics come in. We have to be careful. We have to be cautious. We have to do proper studies. We have to educate everyone involved, as well as those who are not involved. Everyone should know what is happening, what’s going on and how we can minimize risks.”
The field of biotechnology will need a lot of special people if this century is to go down in history as one of noble progress. So if you’re thinking of becoming a biotech scientist or researcher, you’d better start by having a curious mind as well as a love and deep respect for living things.
“I was born on a farm, and my father was a farmer,” Mahmoud says. “And I had seen what you can do back then through plant breeding to improve plants, to reduce costs, to reduce use of pesticides, to reduce irrigation. And I just developed a love for the field myself. I wanted to know how things work.”
You needn’t be a scientist to find employment in the expanding biotech sector. But whatever biotech career you’re considering, it’s important not to enter it carelessly or avoid it altogether simply for emotional reasons. Biotechnology is an exciting, but complex, domain. Mahmoud advises people to research the field of biotech thoroughly, with an open mind, and arrive at a solid understanding of the risks and benefits associated with it before making a commitment. “Don’t just listen to one side,” he says. “Understand the system. Make an informed decision.”
And because the sphere of biotechnology has the potential to impact human society and the natural world in such profoundly consequential ways, it’s probably a good idea to develop some other personality traits also. The people who will succeed and help ensure the most ethical use of biotech will likely need to demonstrate a mixture of daring, creativity, resilience and compassion.
Love it or hate it, the twenty-first century probably belongs to biotech. “There is a tremendous amount of progress we have made in the field of biotechnology, whether it is to do with plants or humans or other organisms,” says Mahmoud. “And we are learning quite a bit. The human genome has been completely sequenced now, and we are discovering things that were unimaginable a few years ago. The implications are just tremendous. There is, of course, risk associated with it, and we learn as we go. But I don’t think there is any going back.”