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Biotechnology Industry Review

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Washington, D.C.

Agricultural and Chemical Industries

The bio-revolution resulting from advances in molecular biosciences and biotechnology has already outstripped the advances of the "Green Revolution." In the early 1960s, the pioneering studies of Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug, using cross-breeding techniques based on classical genetics, offered for the first time a weapon against hunger in the countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. As a direct result of the comprehensive studies of Borlaug and his contemporaries, new wheat hybrids began to transform the harvests of India and China, although they had a relatively minor influence on agriculture in more temperate climates. There is little doubt that genetic manipulation will open more new doors in this field, and will dramatically alter farming worldwide.

It does not require a crystal ball to imagine the potential of the immediate biotechnological future. From the advances in recent years, it is possible to extrapolate to a number of likely developments based on research now in progress. In the plant world, the 1978 development of the "pomato," a laboratory-generated combination of two members of the Solanaceae family (the potato and the tomato), was a significant advance. The Flavr Savr tomato was reviewed by the FDA in the spring of 1994 and found to be as safe as conventionally produced tomatoes. This is the first time the FDA has evaluated a whole food produced by biotechnology.

Exciting prospects are likely to result from industrial-scale plant tissue culture. This may soon obviate the need for rearing whole plants in order to generate valuable commodities such as dyes, flavorings, drugs, and chemicals. Cloning techniques could prove to be the way to tackle some of the acute problems of reforesting in semi-desert areas. Seedlings grown from the cells of mature trees could greatly speed up the process. In the summer of 1987, a Belgian team introduced into crop plants a group of genes encoding for insect resistance and resistance to widely used herbicides. This combination of advantageous genes could bring about a new era in plant protection. The crop can be treated safely with more effective doses of weed killer, and it is also engineered to be less susceptible to insect damage.

Dairy farming is also benefiting from advances in biotechnology. Bovine somatotropin (growth hormone) will enhance milk yields, with no increase in feed costs. Embryo duplication methods mean that cows will bear more calves than in the past, and embryo transfer techniques are enabling cattle of indifferent quality to rear good quality stock, a potentially important development for nations with less advanced agriculture. Genetic manipulation of other stock, such as sheep and pigs, appears to be feasible, and work is in progress on new growth factors for poultry.

The outcome of this intense activity will be improvements in the texture, quality, variety, and availability of traditional farm products, as well as the emergence of newly engineered food sources. Such bioengineered super-foods will be welcomed, and will offer new varieties, and hence find new markets in the quality-conscious advanced countries. Despite the enormous potential gains, the economic consequences of possible overproduction in certain areas must also be faced. It will be essential for those concerned with making agricultural policies to keep abreast of the pace of modern biotechnology. Short-term benefits to the consumer of lower agricultural prices must be weighed against a long-term assessment of the impact of new discoveries on the farming industry.


In the medical field, considerable efforts will be devoted to the development of vaccines for killer diseases such as AIDS. Monoclonal antibodies will be used to boost the body's defenses and guide anti-cancer drugs to their target sites. This technology may also help to rid the human and animal world of a range of parasitic diseases by producing specific antibodies to particular parasites. Synthesis of drugs, hormones, and animal health products, together with drug-delivery mechanisms, are all advancing rapidly. Enzyme replacement and gene replacement therapy are other areas where progress is anticipated. The next decade will see significant advances in medicine, agriculture, and animal health directly attributable to biotechnology.

Mining and Waste Management

The impact of the new technology will not, however, be confined to bio-based industries. Genetically engineered microbes may become more widely used to extract oil from the ground and valuable metals from factory wastes. In short, the lives of every one of us will be influenced by biotechnology.

Growth potential for worldwide biotechnological markets by the year 2000:

Market sector                       $  (In millions)
Energy 15,392
Foods 11,912
Chemicals 9,936
Health care (pharmaceuticals) 8,544
Agriculture 8,048
Metal recovery 4,304
Pollution control 96

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