Biotechnology is not a new form of technology. We started manipulating nature when we first created alcohol and vinegar. Modern biotechnology comes from research into recombinant DNA in the early 1970s. This involved manipulating and changing DNA to have new and enhanced properties. We are already seeing more people gaining access to food and new drugs that are improving people’s lives. This article is going to explore several areas of Biotechnology. The topics will include genetically modified (GM) food, drug research, 3D printing, DNA sequencing and longevity. The aim is to make the subject understandable and accessible to everyone.
The first topic is both controversial and life-saving at the same time. GM food has been an area of research that has divided opinion. Many consider it in a negative light because it is going against the natural world’s rhythm. They fear that playing with nature will cause untold harm to us and the world around us. There is no concrete answer to their concerns. Biotechnology is such a new field of research that the full effects, whether positive or negative, have not yet manifested. The use of GM food has had two primary purposes: feeding those without access to food and maximising profits. GM has already allowed crop development in areas where plants do not flourish. For example in dry, hot, dark and other environments hostile to life. GM crops have enabled seeds to grow in the most extreme situations. The other use for GM has been in aesthetically improving commercial vegetables. This type of research is not as ethically sound. There is always a risk with GM products; they could result in unknown changes to the natural world. If the only result is a physical change to a plant, then the research will only benefit the profits of food retailers. Playing with nature for profit has become the norm in some countries. There have also been advances in growing organisms in other ways. There is less risk to the natural environment when GM organisms are kept in the lab, rather than the farmer’s field.
We have seen that seeds have improved, but this is only a small part of Biotechnology. New ways of creating biological organisms have come to light recently. We have been going beyond traditional techniques of producing biological organisms. Some essential drugs come from natural sources, and this limits the available supply. New technologies now exist that allow us to create unlimited quantities of life-saving medicine. Vast amounts of synthetic artemisinin, a malaria treatment, are being made using yeast. It was impossible in the past to grow enough of the natural precursor to provide for all the sufferers. Artemisinin is not the only drug or substance that can be manufactured using a technique like this. Food manufacturers have also moved into this area. For example, the “impossible burger” contains a substance that smells and looks like the natural juices in meat. It has resulted in a vegetable-based burger that is almost indistinguishable from real meat. This could have profound effects on our future; mass production of organic compounds in labs could mean we rely less on agriculture. New meat alternatives could mean that the pollution and ethical dilemmas of animal farming could be a thing of the past. It could also provide the raw materials for 3D printers.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is being combined with biotechnology. Many academic papers already explain how scientists have started developing ‘bio-printing’. This is the construction, cell-by-cell, of real biological organs using advanced 3D printers. It will mean we can grow new livers, lungs, hearts or any organ in an animal or person. The 3D printed implants are made from the cells of a patient. As a result of this, there will be no rejection like traditional transplants. This will mean we can help terminal patients and they will not have to wait for operations. This type of technology is not yet with us today though. Scientists are starting to move from concept to animal testing; experts predict at least another decade before this type of technology become a reality for humans.
Biotechnology is benefiting us today, even though some of the technologies are but blips on the horizon. It took 13 years and $3 billion to sequence the human genome for the first time. Now, it can be done in a matter of hours for hundreds of dollars (and this is improving every year). This means we can analyse DNA and find why a patient has been suffering, or we can predict and prevent future illnesses and disease. While there will undoubtedly be moral panic at these possibilities, it presents an opportunity for us to suffer less in the future. The manufacture of new organs and the ability to analyse a person’s genetic makeup have many potential benefits. One of the most puzzling questions for scientists has been whether our brain could cope with a body that lasts much longer. Presently, our minds begin to encounter many problems as we grow older. The most debilitating of these involve diseases that cause the brain to deteriorate. For example, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Recently scientists have made phenomenal progress in researching solutions to reverse these conditions. Rats with similar symptoms to these diseases had genetically modified cell transplants. They started to show dramatic improvements in their symptoms. Genetic treatments could mean we could live many more years than today and they offer a glimmer of hope in the future that growing old may not mean losing who we are.
Biotechnology is revolutionising the future of medicine and food. It is a field that has been born from human ingenuity, and it has allowed us to change nature. Many people are afraid of this technology, but when done for the right reasons it can improve the lives of the most vulnerable in the world. It has allowed us to feed the poor, create food and even manufacture biological organisms using 3D printing. Medicine is being a revolutionised, and we will potentially increase our lifespan and resistance to disease. While some of these things are directly benefiting us today, it will take many more years before biotechnology makes its true mark on the world. People may be able to live for hundreds of years more, diseases could be eradicated, and everyone in the world could be fed thanks to this exciting and innovative area of science.