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FUTURE OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Anna Treohan
1993 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


INTRODUCTION

The recent emphasis on environmental awareness has challenged scientists to find solutions for better and safer living conditions. The added threat of deadly diseases such as AIDS and resistant strains of tuberculosis and gonorrhea have forced scientists to look for new therapies within the field of biotechnology.

The structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson, a geneticist, and Francis Crick, a physicist, thus marking the beginning of molecular biology in the 20th century. Their determination of the physical structure of the DNA molecule became the foundation for modern biotechnology, enabling scientists to develop new tools to improve the future of mankind.

The Human Genome Project is a major biotechnological endeavor, the aim of which is to make a detailed map of human DNA. The hereditary instructions inscribed in DNA guide the development of the human being from fertilized egg cell to death. In this project, which is estimated to take 15 years, chromosome maps are being developed in various laboratories worldwide through a coordinated effort guided by the National Institutes of Health. The genetic markers for over 4000 diseases caused by single mutant genes have been mapped.

To get an idea of the magnitude of this project, imagine a stack of 25,000 books. If each book is two centimeters thick, the stack would measure 50 meters, the height of a 15 story building. Consider locating a particular word within one of the books in the stack. For a molecular biologist this would be analogous to finding one gene in the human genome. Up to this point molecular biologists have mapped only a tiny fraction of the genome. The twenty three pairs of human chromosomes are estimated to contain between 50,000 and 100,000 genes, although it appears that only about five percent are ever transcribed.

Recombinant DNA biotechnology has aroused public interest and concern and has influenced medicine, industry, agriculture and environmental problem solving in the twenty years since its inception. In medicine faster and more efficient diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, cancer, sickle cell anemia, and diabetes are soon to be developed. Recombinant organisms will be used in industry to produce new vaccines, solvents, and chemicals of all kinds. Biotechnology has applications in both plant and animal breeding. Scientists are developing disease and herbicide resistant crops, disease resistant animals, seedless fruits and rapidly growing chickens. Microbes are being engineered to digest compounds that are currently polluting our environment.

Some of the more exciting frontiers of biotechnology include proteinbased "biochips" which may replace silicon chips. It is believed that biochips would be faster and more energy efficient. Biochip implants in the body could deliver precise amounts of drugs to affect heart rate and hormone secretion or to control artificial limbs. Biosensors are monitors that use enzymes, monoclonal antibodies, or other proteins to test air and water quality, to detect hazardous substances, and to monitor blood components in vivo.

Gene therapy involves correction of defects in genetic material. In this process a normal gene is introduced to replace a malfunctioning one. "Gene therapy" will be the "expression" of the medical research branch of biotechnology. It may in time form the basis of its own industry or join the traditional pharmaceutical industry. New delivery systems, called liposomes, are being developed to get cytotoxic drugs to tumor sites with minimal damage to surrounding healthy tissues. New monoclonal antibodies will be isolated for use in cancer treatment, diagnostic testing, bone marrow transplantation and other applications.

Whatever the future of these particular ventures, it seems molecular biology and biotechnology will be important sciences of the coming century.


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